Recently, a friend asked why I thought Government buildings seem to always have problems on completion. Because we were sharing a table at a Rotary lunch, my answer was short, although most likely more than enough for the situation. But his question was interesting, and deserves a fuller answer. Why would projects commissioned by Government suffer more from building-related problems than those commissioned by the private sector?

I believe the answer is in the decision-making process.

The three factors that work together to minimize unwanted issues in a building project all relate to key decisions made by the Owner in the process of having the project completed: the choice of the design team, the choice of the builder and the choice of how the project will be commissioned and maintained. In the private sector, these choices are made with the project well-being as the ONLY issue, with the Owner focused on getting the best possible asset for his investment. Government projects, however, and supposedly in the public interest, believes other considerations are more important than the final product.

The decisions that lead to the choice of a design team, for example, are driven by a wish to appear “democratic”. Government projects (when local consultants are to be hired) are required to go through a “bidding” process, where, although the statement is made that price is not the final reason for decisions, fear of political repercussions makes it the most important issue. Add to that that the invitation to join the “bid list” in the first place is often a factor of political favour, the question of expertise is clearly not a driving factor. The obsolete practice of choosing the team that would guide the investment of major public funds by anything but competence is continued primarily because the public demands it. It is continued because there is no recognition of the importance of the design team in the quality of the final product. As far as the public is concerned, the Minister is the reason the project is good or bad, not the design team.

The second factor is the choice of a builder. The time-honoured principle of competitive tender works, but it only works if the bid list is appropriate for the project. When builders without the required competence or organization (or support) are included for “democratic” or political reasons, the process is compromised. Placing a builder with no experience in the position to produce a major project is often bad for both the builder and the project, as the number of bankrupt builders who have left unfinished projects behind can attest. Again, the focus on anything but competence in the selection of builders is not really in the interest of either the builder or the project.

An important part of this concern is the ability of the design team to perform their function during the construction process when the builder has direct access to the Owner (through the Minister). Control of time, cost and quality becomes difficult or impossible.

Finally, all buildings are a collection of complex systems that must be commissioned and “worked in”. The builder has the responsibility of initiating that process prior to hand-over, and to monitor it for a period of time. But the Owner must at some point take responsibility for the operation of complex, and sometimes fragile equipment, and operate it on a day-to-day basis. In private sector projects, the Owner might identify an individual or organization before the project is completed, to become familiar with the systems and their needs, and to take over the running of the project after occupancy. For this important role, the Government relies on the Ministry of Works, an organization with responsibility for dozens, if not hundreds of buildings. Many projects fall apart for want of someone who knows who to call or which button to press. While most of us have been familiar with the “Super’s Office” in our travels, we have not expected it here for even the largest Government projects. Even small resort properties understand the need for this service. Without it, systems are brought into operation without proper supervision or adjustments, and minor issues become major problems.

There is a belief that one of Government’s roles is to create job opportunities for young professionals. All of the professions have had processes for centuries designed to protect the public while training young professionals. In most instances, a form of apprenticeship is used. Doctors go through internship. Lawyers go through internship. Engineers and architects go through apprenticeship, or “professional training”. As a community, we have abandoned these practices where possible, believing our children brilliant and therefore not in need of further training, and while in the private sector we demand only excellence, we demand opportunity for our friends or children when public sector work is available. The result is Government projects with lots of defects.

Patrick Rahming RIBA

January 1, 2014

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