An open letter to the new Chief Construction Adviser

[This is a re-post of an article from my pwcom blog, published 27 November 2009. Update (04 December): I added a post-script to the original post – read the response received back from Paul Morrell.]

First mooted in July 2008, the appointment of the UK government’s first Chief Construction Advisor was finally announced this week. Former Davis Langdon quantity surveyor Paul Morrell has taken up the three-days-a-week job at a critical time for the construction industry, and his new role has been extensively covered in the main construction weeklies. I have been taking a look back at some posts I wrote last year about this role, and felt moved to compose an open letter to our new ‘construction czar’….

Dear Mr Morrell

First, congratulations on your new appointment which is long overdue, particularly as it was more than 16 months ago that the House of Commons Business and Enterprise Committee recommended – in Constructing Matters (PDF) – the “creation of a post of Chief Construction Officer”.

As I wrote at the time, Constructing Matters was, however, something of a disappointment to me. Like another document published shortly before – the Strategy for Sustainable Construction (see post) – it failed to pay attention to better use of ICT tools within the UK construction industry.

I read in this week’s Building magazine that you plan to focus on two aims: to co-ordinate low carbon policy and to improve the government’s return on its investment. I submit that in both these areas ICT can play a crucial role.

The Commons Committee received evidence of the potential benefits of ICT tools to address such problems. Indeed, Constructing Excellence (of which I am a member) said:

Common processes and tools bond the team together and release major efficiencies. For example, good inter-operability of ICT systems in the supply chain using Constructing Excellence’s Avanti protocol, project extranets and single building information models, and common logistics for moving materials to and from site. ICT is seriously under-exploited in the sector despite many initiatives and much evidence of the business case. However, something as simple as co-location of a project team in the same office is a good place to start.

Sadly, Constructing Matters had just one mention of ICT (relating to training new entrants to the industry). Perhaps when you chair the Construction Innovation and Growth team, you will encourage industry professionals to look at the huge potential of information and communications technologies to support the delivery of a better, more sustainable built environment.

There is a growing body of support and advice on this topic. For example:

  • Sir John Egan, in Accelerating Change (2002), highlighted the role of ICT, and wanted 50% of projects to be delivered by integrated teams by 2007 – a target the industry failed to meet.
  • I helped produced a study on ICT and Automation (PDF) in late 2007, which was published by the National Platform for the Built Environment and formed the basis of a new Strategic Research Agenda (PDF) just four months ago.
  • The SCRI Research Report, Future Generation of IT (PDF) published in June 2009 helped identify “possible futures that the construction industry might face and to start developing a construction IT vision for the year 2030“.
  • In 2008, the Cabinet Office’s 28-page report Greening Government ICT also talked explicitly and positively about ‘Thin client’ technologies and other potential ICT contributions.
  • The Construction Commitments, among other things, says “IT-based collaborative tools and communication technologies will be exploited“.

Internally, UK Government (the construction industry’s biggest single client) has also been looking at improving efficiency through the Gershon Efficiency Programme, and one strand of the 2008 Operational Efficiency Programme was the cross-cutting area of ‘Back office and IT’.

Looking at the tasks outlined in your job description last year, I think  ICT has a vital role – for example:

  • “promote best practice in construction procurement” – think about the efficiency savings that come from automating aspects of tendering, making information available online and reducing paperwork.
  • “implementation of Government policy” – from Gershon to Greening Government IT, ICT is now a cross-cutting strand within government and the Strategy for Sustainable Construction, albeit modestly, gives scope for government to encourage better ICT use across the industry at large and support its low carbon policy.
  • “Championing the industry’s image” – Too often described (sometimes unfairly) as ‘technophobic’, the industry could at least partly transform construction’s low-tech image by incorporating ICT more effectively into its day-to-day operations. This could range from high-end BIM collaboration to the ways in which industry manages its conversations with clients, supply chains, local communities, regulators, new recruits to the industry, and others (see post).
  • “Promoting innovation” – ditto.

I hope you and your support team will take on board much of this growing clamour to take this great industry of our’s well and truly into the digital age.

Yours sincerely

Paul Wilkinson

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