The business secretary’s comments on “terrified clients” excluding SMEs will have struck a chord with architects

Rab Bennetts

Source: Clare Park

Rab Bennetts

Vince Cable’s recent statements about the way in which “terrified clients” are excluding SMEs from OJEU procurement processes suggests the government is finally waking up to something the design industry has known about for years.  The peculiarly British fixation with risk management has backed most public-sector clients into a corner, unable to ignore the ill-informed advice of lawyers and project managers who see small as bad and big as good.  In the design world at least, this understanding of risk is wholly out of kilter with reality and actually commits clients to greater, not smaller risk.

As an architect, I know that design is not just a process to be managed; it needs personal commitment and a strong relationship with the client, combined with the far more important quality of design talent. The quantity of resources and the number of previous projects of the same type is far less relevant and, yet, these are the criteria that tend to dominate selection procedures as they can be scored on a numerical basis. 

Creativity, so often overlooked in the selection procedures, is what’s needed in the procurement processes themselves

Risk is perceived in terms that, by default, favour the large firms and exclude the smaller companies that might well be far better suited to the task at hand, but the risk to the project of choosing the wrong architect is far greater when these inappropriate criteria are used.  And I haven’t even mentioned the fee yet.  Low fees, which invariably score highly on the bean-counter’s assessment methods, are almost invariably the way to ensure that the risks to the project are maximised, not minimised. Low fees equal minimum resources and the lowest-paid, least experienced personnel; how can the lowest bid do anything but add to the client’s risk?  The scoring systems themselves are also at fault, with low fee bids hoovering up points whilst the qualitative aspects are notoriously difficult to assess.

As Vince Cable observes, clients who need an audit trail are terrified of going against the advice of the advisers who can’t see beyond measurable criteria, which traps them into decisions that aren’t in their best interests.  The solution, in my view, is to have independent design advice on the client’s side during the selection procedures from before the OJEU Notice is drafted, so the criteria are more relevant and an element of judgement and common sense is possible at the final selection stage. There is nothing in the European legislation that prevents this; it’s simply that UK procurement culture is dominated by a misplaced understanding of risk among the legal and project management fraternity, which has in turn created a bureaucratic monster for much of our industry.  Creativity, so often overlooked in the selection procedures, is what’s needed in the procurement processes themselves.

Rab Bennetts is co-founder of Bennetts Associates