What Have the Romans (Government) Ever Done for Us?

The long awaited Government Industrial Strategy for Construction will be published next month. Here’s a suggestion for what it could say and what I think it probably will say:

What it could say:

The UK construction industry is capable of great feats of innovation, but it needs the support of enlightened, intelligent clients to deliver to its fullest potential. This Government will therefore address the shortcomings of public sector procurement to demonstrate that the public sector can be an intelligent client which no longer stifles innovation, focussing on least first cost rather than value and attempting to transfer all risk to the private sector.

What it probably will say:

The UK construction industry does not innovate often enough. Therefore, whilst maintaining the current public procurement structures that favour compliance and accountability over innovation, Government will introduce ever more restrictive rules that will force the Construction Industry to adopt expensive and un-necessary practices such as BIM in the hope that this will in turn force more collaborative working and somehow lead to more innovation.

Government, national and local presently persists in pursuing risk transfer over innovation and least cost instead of best value in public sector procurement. The recent spending cuts have unfortunately merely reinforced the focus on least first cost by setting short term financial targets. A better outcome for the country could be achieved by refocusing procurement on value so that savings are replicated year on year rather than pursuing least cost today at the expense of tomorrow.

Government also continues with its rhetoric about supporting SMEs and promoting innovation in construction. However it persists in policies that are aimed at transferring all possible risks to another party. Thus it creates the conditions for procurement under which only the largest and safest (ie least innovative) companies can be selected.

It is clear that BIM is going to be used as a Trojan Horse to try and force collaborative working on an industry that is poor at collaboration. However the industry does not collaborate as the present public sector procurement structures actively dis-incentivise collaboration. I am a fan of BIM as a tool, but not as a blunt legislative instrument (look at what has happened to renewables and BREEAM). Until procurement and incentives for construction are re-designed collaboration simply will not happen, with or without BIM. In the meantime the expense of deploying BIM will further prevent Government procurement from engaging with the Innovative SMEs that it purports to support.

Government now has the chance to be an intelligent client for construction and in doing so provide the leadership for the rest of the public sector, and eventually the private sector, to become intelligent clients too. Government could demonstrate the benefits of client intelligence in delivering lower cost, better performing, sustainable construction. Government needs to invest in technical expertise within its departments. Much of what Government is presently doing is evidently well intentioned, but ultimately flawed as it simply does not recognise the differences between construction and other industry sectors. Initiatives and incentives that work in manufacturing or aerospace simply do not translate into the construction sector. A restored, expert civil service would consult with the construction industry to create an intelligent system for procurement, financing and operating public sector projects to everybody’s benefit.

I want to hear that the Industrial Strategy for Construction will commit Government to investing in the reform and demonstration that is essential for the industry to move forward and be genuinely sustainable. Not only in what it constructs, but for the sake of our economy, to become sustainable as an industrial sector, able to compete against international encroachment into UK construction. If the Government cannot do this for us we may as well give up and go home.

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