Consulting vs. Public Sector Jobs in Planning

As someone new to the urban planning profession, I was often curious about the various types of jobs available to planners and asked extensively about this during my informational interviews with practitioners in the field. I learned that planners generally work either in government (public sector), consulting firms (private sector), or non-profit (advocacy) organizations. I also heard plenty of perspectives about the nature of each of these sectors, leading me to conclude that I’d probably want to begin my career in a consulting firm to gain experience before eventually joining a public agency to execute on more long-term projects. (This seems to be one of the more common paths for recent graduates in this industry.)

In order to gain more of my own perspective and get a sense of what it would be like to actually take on these jobs, I sought internships with both consulting firms and public sector agencies to accompany my graduate degree in planning. Now that I’ve successfully completed three internships (with two public transit agencies and one private consulting firm), I’d like to use this limited experience to document more of the nuanced differences between work in the private and public sectors.

Going beyond the stereotypical anecdotes (i.e., “consulting is more fast-paced, public sector has more bureaucracy”), I have found significant differences in the day-to-day work, the nature of projects, how staff engage with the general public, how careers are built, and ultimately who is served by staff. These details are difficult to discern from a cursory informational interview but should prove useful to any future aspirational planner. With more experience, I plan to revisit this in some form regularly to attempt to maintain a current picture of the field.


Day-to-day work

In consulting, each employee is generally assigned a roster of 5–10 different projects at any given time. These projects all have their own clients, timelines, tasks, and deliverables, so it is imperative for each employee to establish systems for workflow management that they’re comfortable with on a holistic level. (That is, setting up a preferred task manager, content repository, communication tools, etc.) Projects will ebb and flow, varying greatly in their demand for consultants’ time, so one might find themselves putting in many hours for a project in one week but relegating it to the back burner the next. A perennially important skill for consultants is the ability to stay on top of all their assigned projects, balancing workloads and setting expectations for stakeholders from week to week. Context switching in the middle of the day is inevitable and frequent. The benefit of this intense variety is that one can develop a wide array of skills very quickly.

The actual project tasks vary greatly by client preference and project scoping, but they tend to involve deeper technical work that clients cannot or do not wish to perform themselves. For example, this could be data collection, statistical analysis, simulation modeling, computer-aided design (CAD) work, technical writing, or similar tasks. A significant amount of the work is also in communicating with the clients and/or other project stakeholders. There is also notable overhead necessary to count time — that is, the tracking of hours spent on each assigned project and figuring out the “optimal” way to bill clients for the work (which is not as straightforward as one would imagine at first). This overhead (or “work about work” as those in the productivity space would call it) can consume significant resources and needs to be accounted for in cost/time estimations. At the same time, this enables a high degree of flexibility as one can scale up or down their involvement in projects as needed.

In contrast, the work of a public sector employee is typically much less varied. Each employee may be responsible for 1–3 long-running projects, where they have an established role or area of ownership. Project tasks may include technical work, but more often are oriented at a higher level. For example, they may be synthesizing information for stakeholders, engaging with the public, or (ironically) coordinating external consultants and their deliverables! There is less context switching and less of a focus on counting time, but overhead still exists in the form of internal bureaucracies built over many years and necessary dealings with external political stakeholders.

Another type of “overhead” more common in public sector work (especially in the United States) is the interminable hunt for project funding sources. Whether through internal politics, citywide or regional advocacy, or grant applications, many public sector staff need to be involved in getting funding and some may even be completely devoted to this work.

Nature of Projects

Project management (PM, not to be confused with product management or program management) is so fundamental to consulting that it is often its own discipline with an associated career path. Staff are encouraged to hone their PM skills over time by writing project proposals (applying for bids), scoping work in collaboration with other staff members and client stakeholders, estimating costs, etc. Not all consulting staff become PMs, but it is often seen as the logical progression of one’s consulting career. As part of this, being able to find and start new projects by building relationships with clients also becomes an important skill within consulting firms.

Consulting projects spin up and slow down all the time, and a typical staff member may be brought in for just one task or asked to stay longer-term to see major deliverables through. Notably, once a staff member has delivered their work, they typically do not see what happens to it as the client may proceed to use it in ways not visible to the consulting firm. That’s usually fine with the staff — there are always new projects and tasks to focus on next. There are exceptions, especially at firms focused on a local geography that are more likely to revisit their work as they continue relationships with their clientele. However, ultimately “maintenance” work is not the typical goal for a consultant.

In the public sector, projects typically arise from long-term planning efforts. Usually, planners conceive of them but need to get them approved by an oversight board, local politician, or the general public (i.e., on an election ballot) before officially starting. Project requirements need to be gathered from many stakeholders and eventually parts of the project may go out to a bidding process. (Larger agencies may do more work in-house, while smaller agencies may need to outsource almost everything.) Public sector employees may then need to evaluate many bids from consultants before signing contracts, or they may have an on-call relationship with one preferred consulting firm where they can get work outsourced at any time. Once a consultant finishes their deliverable, a public sector employee likely needs to review, summarize, and eventually produce public-facing materials based on the content. Unlike in consulting, public sector staff usually stay on projects through their conclusion — whether that be an implementation, cancellation, or otherwise.

Relationship with the Public

An average employee at a consulting firm would typically only interface with the public at the request of a public agency. Most of consulting work is done “behind the scenes” for clients; in fact, the knowledge that a consulting firm is involved in a project can even harm the trust between a government body and the general public. Again, there are exceptions, particularly with consultants that specialize in community engagement and brought onto projects specifically for this task.

Hence, public engagement is most often led by staff at public agencies, or via elected officials. In this way, the public can see and interact with those directly accountable for outcomes.

Career Growth

There are generally two tracks for progressing one’s career at a consulting firm: managerial or technical. (This is similar to the manager vs. individual contributor roles at many private companies.) Historically, consulting firms placed more emphasis and value on the managerial track, but more modern/technical/analytical firms seem to be recognizing the importance of a robust career path for technical staff who have less interest in managing people or projects. Regardless of track, honorific titles are used to distinguish staff at different levels (i.e., Senior, Associate, Principal). One should expect to be working for 10+ years before reaching Principal levels.

In the managerial track, getting promoted seems to primarily be a function of one’s ability to sell. First, one must be good at selling themselves (i.e., leveraging skills and experience) to office/project managers to get on projects where they’ll excel/learn/develop even more skills to land the next project. Then, to reach higher levels, one must become good at selling the firm to win more clients and start more projects. This means becoming comfortable with the project bidding and interview processes as well as continuously nurturing relationships with potential clients. If one is especially proficient in these “marketing” activities, they may eventually grow into a role primarily responsible for bringing new work into the firm.

Growing a career in the public sector is clearly very different. Obviously, there is little incentive for being a good salesperson (unless one considers the value of selling ideas or visions), but there is also the fact that promotions and titles work completely differently in many public sector organizations (see an example of the complexities of the civil service system). For example, direct promotion may not even be possible; one may need to apply for a whole new role at a higher level in order to grow. (Plus, these roles may not always be available due to funding restrictions — so leaving one’s team or even one’s field of expertise may be necessary to get to a higher classification.) The flipside is that once a role is obtained, it tends to have much more security and stability than a private sector role. Skills valued in the public sector are also slightly different; there is more emphasis on collaborating well with many stakeholders and understanding governance structures (e.g., public finance and legal frameworks).

Who You Serve

In consulting, it is made clear that staff serve at the pleasure of clients. Firms always have the choice to refuse service to a client if a project does not align with the firm’s values, but in reality this is a sliding scale and economic conditions may dictate what kind of work a firm may need to take on. At a more fundamental level, employees at a consulting firm serve the company’s shareholders (which can be public or private, perhaps limited to a subset of higher-level employees at the firm). This means that all staff must be familiar with how the firm makes money and the underlying financial metrics that drive the business. For example, “chargeability” (the percent of staff time billed to clients as opposed to research & development, training, marketing, or other activities) is a key metric often measured at company-wide, office, and individual staff levels. An unrelenting focus on this metric is necessary to ensure the firm’s continued profitability (and hence it is a major factor in career growth as well).

In contrast, public sector staff serve their government unit (e.g., a mayor’s office, department of transportation, etc.) This often ends up being some form of elected official — hence, maintaining a good relationship with “electeds” becomes crucial for a public agency to achieve its goals and maintain funding. Ultimately, public sector employees serve the general public because of the simple fact that their salaries are paid by taxes. There is no real profit motive, but there is an understanding that tax revenue should be spent prudently so the government unit can remain solvent (thus allowing it to continue serving the public).

Summary

Hopefully this has answered many potential questions about how consulting and the public sector compare for planners about to embark on their careers. As a quick reference:

There is still more that can be said about the personality types and work styles of the people you’ll find in consulting versus the public sector, but this begins veering into stereotypes and would perhaps be best addressed separately in the future.

What’s clear for now is that there really is no side that is “better” to be working in as a planner; both have pros and cons and it’s up to the individual to make career choices based on their innate preferences. Furthermore, many planners actually recommend working in both consulting and the public sector at some point in one’s career; there is plenty to learn in both! Plus, working in one sector benefits from previous experience in the other given how closely the two sectors interact.

Regardless of which path one chooses, a final thing to keep in mind is that the universe of urban planners is quite small. As they say, “reputations matter” and you never know who could provide the connection that lands your next role — whether in consulting, government, or elsewhere!


Special thanks to my former colleagues Kevin Zamzow-Pollock and Jiajia Zhou for their review and additions to this post!

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