Is the Government Construction Strategy fundamentally flawed? I hope not but…

Is the Government Construction Strategy fundamentally flawed? I hope not but…

The Government Construction Strategy has merit, as did and do the string of not dissimilar publications that have flown from the pens (PCs) of the chosen ones charged with reshaping construction into an industry of which we can be proud.

That said, I don’t really think it is my job to dwell on the various detailed points. People far more into the nitty-gritty of procurement and industry management can do that.

Though I will say that the move to push BIM (or should I dare to be different and speak to those not in the know and call it Building Information Modelling) is a wise one, it would seem from my very brief reading of research done on the US experience.

Although I might add, one issue that probably must be addressed is the potential for the degradation of human intelligence that, if not checked, can accompany the introduction of machines, spawned in part from a misplaced assumption that machines’ decisions are irrefutable.

Certainly the group think and lack of tension implicit within adoption of BIM and collaborative working might easily lead to fewer and less aggressive checks, unless they are introduced, and a culture of “well the other fella’s done it”.

As Rob Garvey of the University of Westminster, who is far better placed than I to judge, points out in his blog, most of the boxes appear to be ticked to suggest that the authors “understand the nature of the problem”.

I share his concerns and, yes, it does rather read like “we’ve heard it all before”. I also applaud and support his optimism and generally feel this is a move in the right direction.

Still, my job is to play Mr Nasty. So let’s be on with it.

First, perhaps, I should explain the prism through which I judge things such as the change agenda. I believe there are just three things that you need to consider. They are: Behaviour, Risk (attitudes towards and management of) and Transparency, or BRaT (so I can remember what it is I think).

These in my view are things the industry falls down on badly – although there are some within it that are world class in the area of risk. Still I am confounded by the bizarre scarcity of behavioural theorists and practitioners within an industry employing more than 2 million people (one in ten of the working population) who are regularly put in unfamiliar situations and are mixed into stressful groups.

I suspect that outside of BRaT everything else can more or less be reduced to numbers or, for those with exotic tastes, game theory strategies. And I’d like to think that the construction industry does those well, the numbers bit at least.

To my first point of criticism. It will for some seem a little too pointed, but I feel a sharp needle is needed to burst some of the pomposity and prod at the platitudes.

The document says quite reasonably that “…the UK does not get full value from public sector construction. And that it has failed to exploit the potential for public procurement of construction and infrastructure projects to drive growth.”

And then goes on to say: “This strategy changes all that.”

Well, job done then. Let’s go home and put our feet up.

What guff. Sadly it doesn’t change “all that”. Changes in strategy are exactly that – changes in strategy. What changes what people do is people changing what they do.

That is not all that registered on the guffometer. I could point to a host of other bits of script that should have been judiciously edited out.

This brings me to my second point, a pondering really, as Pooh Bear might say.

Who is the author talking to when he/she/they write?

“…confirm that a preset measure of value for money at programme level for operational need exists, and is applied consistently in appraising suppliers’ propositions;”

WHAT?

I think it means: “We will try not to be ripped off.”

This, let’s face, is a good approach in any business.

And I think, though I am not sure, that the neat bit is that there will be a readily available list thingy with which to check that we (the taxpayer) are not being ripped off while suppliers are being fairly paid.

Please tell me if I am wrong, because I am really not sure.

And, while I am pleading, here is one for the author: read Bertrand Russell, just a little bit, although probably not Principia Mathematica (not that I have). He may have been one of the greatest British – perhaps world – thinkers of the 20th Century and covered in his writings a huge eclectic swathe of philosophical and social issues, but he managed to write in a language that an average 14 year old could understand.

What is more surprising about the language used in the report is that it actually states that: “The industry is highly fragmented, with over 300,000 businesses (of which 99.7% are SMEs) and over 2 million workers.”

Come on, how many of them will understand or bother to read this document? It is written in exclusive-speak and aimed at those who speak it and understand the jargon.

Chairman Mao did not mobilise the Chinese Red Army on the long march with a stirring speech suggesting that: “The transition from the outset to the conclusion of this extensive perambulation of approximately one thousand six hundred kilometres will commence with an initial ambulatory action of one unit.”

The report smacks of exclusion. It smacks of a stitch up of the big boys, those in the know.

Is it intended to be a strategy of the industry or a strategy for the industry?

My final point, perhaps the more significant, is that I fear the whole thing is flawed. Now I am prepared to be very wrong indeed on this. And it is possible, while it doesn’t feel like it, that I may just be in a grouchy mood and this is colouring my judgement.

Let’s consider two points it makes within a list below the words “the right model for public sector construction in the UK is one in which”. They are:

  • clients issue a brief that concentrates on required performance and outcome; designers and constructors work together to develop an integrated solution that best meets the required outcome;
  • there is an alignment of interest between those who design and construct a facility and those who subsequently occupy and manage it.

Meanwhile paragraph 2.24 says: “Clearly, where cost is a lead driver, there is a risk that the quest for lowest initial capital cost will take precedence over judgements based on value – which is fundamentally about the outcome of a project over its whole life. A vital context of cost benchmarking is therefore a clear understanding of how a project will deliver value in the provision of public services, so that the cost benchmark is not set artificially low by the inclusion of projects that fail to deliver value.”

The “right model” looks all very reasonable, but inevitably its desires are practically unattainable.

If by outcome we are talking about the most efficient and effective use of the building in use, put to the chosen purpose of that building over its entire life, then we have a problem. And I take for my interpretation of what the author means by outcome from par 2.24.

How long does a building last, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, 100 years?

How long will it be usefully used to provide the public service it is built to meet 1 year, 2 years, 10 years, 50 years?

I suspect the buildings will long outlast their initial needs on average by some margin. Then what? Look at the legacy issues of the Olympics, they have drifted into near farce. Not that I decry the intentions or the efforts made.

Public services provision is in, or about to drop into, a period of radical restructuring. This will demand flexibility.

How can you price the in-use, whole-life outcomes of a building without making what will probably be bogus assumptions?

Find the word “flexible” or “flexibility” in the report and I’ll buy you a drink, because it would cheer me up.

My gripe with the schools programme (I recall when I first aired gripes it was unfashionable as the money flowed in liberally) was not just that it was an extravagant use of public funds to build swanky schools for what would probably be the lucky few, rather than spending the money on better more standardised schools for every child.

My gripe was that these swanky schools helped to ossify a schooling structure which would inevitably need to adapt to potentially radical changes in demography, in social attitudes, in educational theory and political interventions.

Just as generals fight the last war, governments build to satisfy current rather than the future needs. Why?

The answer is simple: We don’t know what the future holds.

Health experts will tell you that we will need radical changes in the infrastructure to meet the changing demography and the changing needs and aspirations of the population. But exactly what will be needed is unclear, although we can make a stab at it.

This is not a declaration of despair. We just need to be flexible and realistic in our thinking.

It is all well and good driving down the cost of a building by 20% and I applaud efforts to do so. But if the building is inappropriate after a few years, that cost saving may well prove piffling in the grand scheme of things.

How aligned will the industry be with the public client if the real answer to the “outcome and performance” question is we really don’t know what the objectives will be in a few years so “you’d be mad to build” or “you’d be better off to make do and mend”?

How many contractors or consultants told the previous administration its schools programme was silly, when the money flowed? How many were brave enough to publicly air their views and align themselves with the public good?

Well they are coming out of the woodwork now.

I am eager to be dissuaded from me fears and I am sure this is a point that the brains behind the report will have considered. But as the report stands it the issue of what buildings will be used for in the future weeps like a running sore through the whole concept that lies behind Government Construction Strategy.

ps. How does this sit with localism?


One thought on “Is the Government Construction Strategy fundamentally flawed? I hope not but…

  1. Brian,
    Challenging and gritty, I like it.
    I’d like to comment on 3 things:
    1) Our being ripped off?
    In my opiniom, we don’t really know! ergo your point about TRANSPARENCY. The industry has become proficient at managing price rather than cost and this is a whole other blog.
    2) Language
    Fair point; can’t imagine many have read the previous documents either
    3) strategy of/for the industry
    I believe this is directed at the public sector client and the challenge here is their capability to implement (see comments on my blog),
    But as I say if this is what the client wants, then the supply side will generally deliver.
    Good stuff
    Rob

Comments are closed.

Comments are closed.