He is halfway through a two-year secondment from BAA, and, as reported in Building (31 August, page 11), Eke plans to introduce framework agreements, the airport operator's revolutionary procurement strategy. This would make every government department and agency use centralised single-supplier teams, but would not include major strategies such as Defence Estates' prime contracting programme and the NHS' Procure 21 initiative.
The arrangement is primarily designed to remove the waste in the present tendering regime, but it would also benefit construction, Eke argues. "Firms will get a visible workload so they can plan their resources and train their workforces."
But they would also see the government forcing the industry to raise its game on safety and training by setting stringent pre-qualification criteria. Firms that do not measure up will not be considered. "As part of the tender evaluation, having the right credentials to work on government project has to be a precursor to success," says Eke.
Eke believes this could lead to a new round of consolidation in the industry, as firms scramble to develop the critical mass needed to pitch for the lucrative frameworks. "We can't support the hundreds and thousands of white-van men. They should brigade themselves together. What that starts to do is drive out the cowboys."
Other initiatives in the pipeline include a push to turn individual departments into better clients, under the ongoing Achieving Excellence initiative. Recognising that most departments lack in-house expertise, Eke is assembling a seven-strong "advice team" of procurement experts who will advise on the best way of commissioning construction projects. Starting in October, a "roadshow" of 12 conferences around the country, called Rethinking the Construction Client, will attempt to spread the message to regional authorities and industry figures.
Eke hints that he is willing to relax the rigid procurement rules announced last May by his predecessor Mike Burt. Burt insisted that public projects must follow one of three procurement routes – PFI, design-and-build or prime contracting – and could only use the traditional route if it could be proven to offer better value for money. "I would rather departments find innovative ways of contracting with people that will deliver value for money," Eke says. "The overriding test is: are you getting value for money?"
I would rather departments find innovative ways of contracting to deliver value for money
Since last year's comprehensive spending review, departments have been allowed to reinvest savings made on capital projects instead of having to return them to the Treasury. Eke believes this will encourage departments to rationalise their procurement strategies. "My mantra is that I want to make construction more affordable for departments, so departments can reinvest those benefits in more construction," he says.
To help departments achieve value for money, all building projects now have to be assessed against a series of "gateways". The process involves strategic reviews of projects by external experts at five stages of a project, and the aim is to weed out ill-considered or risky projects at an early stage.
At the outset, departments are quizzed on their business case to ensure a new building is needed; teams then help departments decide on a suitable procurement route. Further reviews are carried out a before contract award, just before the project goes live, and once work has started.
Eke is sympathetic to criticism that public projects tend to scrimp on capital costs while ignoring the higher costs of running a building over its lifetime. But he urges the construction industry to work harder at making a convincing case for spending more in order to get a better product. "The upfront costs are minimal in comparison. Clients must take whole life more seriously, but the industry hasn't got a handle on it."
On the whole, Eke is complimentary of the industry's efforts to modernise itself. "I think the construction industry has come on in leaps and bounds in the past five years. There's a much better focus on what the client wants."
The Rethinking the Construction Client roadshow starts in Brighton on 9 October. For details call 020-7839 5702 or visit www.rethinkingconstruction.org.