A major procurement shift is in the pipeline – and not a moment too soon

The government’s admission this week that fewer than half of its biggest projects are likely to be delivered on time and to budget had, for the construction industry, an air of predictability to rival the row over bankers’ bonuses - both in terms of the inevitability of the problem and the consensus that it needs urgently to be fixed.

Monday’s damning assessment by David Pitchford, the head of the government’s Major Projects Authority, confirmed a problem that has plagued delivery of public sector projects for decades. For every successfully delivered scheme, like the Olympics, there are an equal number of failures. Many of them are failures of efficiency that slip below the radar of public scrutiny, but come at a painful cost to the taxpayer and to those firms caught up in procurement blunders, site delays and legal wrangling.

So the next phase of the government’s Construction Strategy, revealed today by Building, is a hugely welcome step. Chief construction adviser Paul Morrell has outlined a series of fresh procurement methods to be trialled across about 35 projects and across a range of sectors. The initiative will prove once and for all whether ideas kicked around over the last few years can help provide the solution to the government’s perennial inefficiency.

The other major procurement shift revealed this week - the government’s creation of an academy to train civil servants to lead projects more effectively - also has a strong underlying logic. The inexperience of government officials as clients has long been a complaint of the sector, even if the knowledge gap has opened up lucrative opportunities for some project managers. But the reality of leadership within government is, critically, far divorced from that envisaged once the academy has trained its recruits - an alarming truth that needs addressing urgently.

The government’s decision to cut swathes from the civil service has led to a troubling exodus of expertise from many of the departments crucial to the industry’s current and future workload. For the evidence this is having on procurement, look no further than the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Education, where major schemes are being delayed because of a lack of understanding of how to handle large-scale procurement.

While the government is training up its new project leaders, these departments need to ensure that the experience they have built up over the last few years does not suffer further erosion. And where they are clearly already failing to cope, then they should turn to private sector expertise as an interim solution to ensure that planned programmes of work, including Morrell’s trials, can progress.

If they do not, the government’s next generation of project leaders will have a far bigger task on their hands, and the continued delay to crucial schemes will force firms to further cut back on the expertise needed to deliver them.

Sarah Richardson, deputy editor

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