The new Construction Clients Group should encourage its members to be at the core of the building process – without being overpoweringly hands-on
In this column on 7 March, I wrote about the demise of the Confederation of Construction Clients, caused partly by the growing reluctance of major clients to be involved in leadership of the process. In retrospect, it was a mistake to scrap the previous Construction Clients Forum, created after Constructing the Team was published in 1994.

The CCF was an economical and non-bureaucratic grouping of trade associations and professional institutions. Its purpose was to express collective views of what a wide variety of clients wanted, and to ensure that their views were heard by the industry. They did not see themselves as leading the industry, or as having any regulatory role, though they did publish useful guidelines.

The CCC, which replaced the CCF after the change of government in 1997, was a different body. It consisted of a relatively small number of very large clients and saw itself as having an active role in driving forward best practice. Unfortunately, several very significant types of client were not represented on it. Despite strong leadership from chief executive Zara Lamont, it ran out of money when some of its members ceased to fund it. They did not see why they should pay to do a job for which they thought they paid consultants and contractors already.

Now it is back to a format rather similar to the CCF. The new Construction Clients Group, in which the British Property Federation will be heavily involved, is seeking a wide outreach of membership. It will decide about what it wants to do. However, I hope it will remember the theme that dominated the BPF's evidence to me while I was writing Constructing the Team and that infused the whole of my report. It also ran through Sir John Egan's task force, which was almost exclusively a body of clients. This theme was that the client should be at the core of the construction process. That does not mean the client should seek to do the work itself, nor be totally prescriptive throughout the project. If the client does want a complete hands-on approach – accommodating sequential design and changes for commercial or operational purposes during construction, where quality and design issues are predominant in its mind and cost is less of an issue – the best procurement route is construction management. That route, however, has major drawbacks for clients who are not expert in construction, and some of them even began to move away from it in the late 1990s by insisting upon a guaranteed maximum price. Most clients will not want to risk such an approach and will prefer design-and-build or traditional procurement.

The client can insist on good practices and be kept fully in the picture. That is what client involvement means

Being at the core of the process does not mean being totally hands-on. For the client, it involves choosing your own supply side team – all of them, not just the main contractor – on a basis of best value, quality and partnering, not lowest price.

It requires the client to specify at the earliest workshop what its goals are for the project, how it will be involved in decision-making procedures to avoid problems arising or solve them if they do, and how to measure progress to ensure that tomorrow goes better than today. It will involve an open-book approach to costing and probably a pain share and gain share mechanism as well.

Those are the parameters for client involvement, but they can also make requirements over the choice of contractor. If the team is to be selected on the basis of best value and quality, the client can insist that the workforce, both directly employed and subcontracted, is properly trained and qualified, with CSCS cards or their equivalents in M&E services. It can require local recruitment, ethnic diversity, trade union membership or other desirable social objectives, though such demands will be easier to accommodate on a large and long-lasting project or series of projects than a brief one-off job.