But ever since its launch in August 1998, Constructionline has struggled to attract a critical mass of users. Endless exhortations from government ministers have failed to persuade enough clients and construction firms to sign up. Last month, only 10,000 firms were registered. In 1999 Capita Group, the firm that runs the service for the government, said it expected 25,000 firms to have joined by 2001.
Over the past few months, the DETR and Capita have become increasingly desperate to save the scheme as those firms that have signed up grow ever more vocal in their criticisms of the way the initiative is being run.
The relationship between the DETR and Capita is understood to have become fractious in recent months. Now senior industry figures have also run out of patience. Last month, Sir Michael Latham wrote to Rodney Aldridge, Capita's chief executive, demanding to know what was being done to get more public clients to sign up.
He said many were still using their in-house systems, and contractors were complaining that Constructionline was not bringing them any work.
We started to use Constructionline in 1999, but it is lacking in smaller firms
William Carruthers, QS, property services, Allerdale council
In reply, Aldridge wrote: "The major reason [for retention of in-house lists] appears to be lack of choice in the small contractor sector, where clients feel that they are not seeing a broad enough level of choice on Constructionline." In other words, a catch-22 situation: clients are unhappy at the lack of firms using Constructionline, and firms are unhappy at the lack of clients.
Construction Industry Board chief executive Don Ward is also frustrated at clients' reluctance to use the service. "The savings Constructionline gives clients are very high indeed," he says. He believes it goes against basic business common sense not to register.
Even those clients that have signed up are not making full use of the system. Industry sources claim that Constructionline's own statistics show that, of the 900 clients signed up to the service, more than one-third of them are "sleeping" clients. Signing up to Constructionline, they claim, is merely a gesture to curry favour with a government. Barry Stephens, deputy chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders and a member of Constructionline's advisory committee, echoes Ward's exasperation. "The truth of the matter is you can take a horse to water but you can't make the damn thing drink," he says.
So why won't the horse drink? Lack of thirst or something in the water? Criticism of the scheme has been aimed at the system's database for having an inadequate number of services online and for holding poor-quality information. For example, the application form for contractors is not currently available online (technical difficulties with the website are blamed). The forms for small builders are also being redesigned after complaints that they are too time-consuming.
Why do we use it? Cost, simple as that. It is extremely cost effective, even for big councils
Rodney Maiklem, QS, property and technical services, Cherwell council
Schemes intended to make the service more efficient have suffered delay. Technical assessments for steelworkers, to be carried out by the British Constructional Steelwork Association, are still not available online. "The concept is good; the difficulty is making it happen," says Gillian Mitchell, director of operations for the BCSA. "We keep hearing that it will be done 'when we sort the computer out'." The Association of Consulting Engineers, set to offer assessment of engineering consultants, has a similar complaint. It says Capita is dithering over whether to use the ACE to assess consultants or to do it itself. "After two years of talk, we are still muddled over what to do. They are still considering whether to do such assessments in-house," says ACE chief executive Nicholas Bennett.
Such complaints lead industry sources to point to ineffective management as a possible cause of the scheme's problems.
The complaint that has particularly exercised contractors has been clients' slowness to abandon their own approved lists. Stephens points out that many clients that have signed up are maintaining their own lists. "It was intended to provide a service that would give them an advantage, by adopting a practice that makes sense. Clients maintaining their own lists puts that into question." Sixty-eight different forms
Smaller councils and housing associations, which typically have minimal resources, often welcome the scheme simply because of its ability to cut costs. But there is a feeling that larger councils are reluctant to use Constructionline because it would mean making the staff who run the private list redundant.
"The standard response from local authorities is that they are a special case and prefer to use their own private lists," says one contractor, who complains that poor response to Constructionline creates an administrative nightmare for him and others like him.
Eventually, the whole council will use it. Maintaining your own list is a full-time post for a number of people
Don Macmillan, procurement manager, technical services, Stirling council
"We deal with 68 different local authorities and get 68 different lots of forms, and that's before housing associations and NHS trusts. In total, that's 100-plus organisations," he says. "I'd say not more than 5% of our public-sector clients are using Constructionline at present. We wish it were more." David Miller, Glasgow council's building services department senior purchasing officer says that, although the council's land services division uses Constructionline for procuring road works contractors, take-up of the scheme is not council-wide.
"Currently our private list is the best way. We will look at Constructionline, but are yet to make a decision," he says. So, Constructionline is battling a cultural bias against change. And the fact that it is a free service for clients seems to cut little ice. The CIB's Ward admits that there is a "certain psychology" against a free service and suggests that charging clients to join a scheme that would eventually give them massive savings could give it more credibility.
Other clients show similar lukewarm commitment to the scheme, making only patchy use of it.
Steve Rowsell, procurement manager for the Highways Agency, uses the service for its assessments of firms' financial capability, although he points to the lack of detailed information elsewhere in the database.
We did think about joining but we have heard that Constructionline doesn’t check the kind of things we need, such as trade bodies
Ann Burrell, principal QS, technical services, Ellesmere Port and Neston council
"We make as much use of it as possible, but there may be a need to develop information on a firm's capability in some areas. I am not entirely satisfied on some data they hold on a firm's quality, such as health and safety standards. We also still need to obtain information on a firm's supply-chain management and their Respect for People status." Defence Estates is another government agency that uses Constructionline to check out firms when compiling bids. Although it is not yet used across the entire agency, a spokeswoman explains that this is a matter of "logistics", and all divisions will be using it shortly.
Another big client, NHS Estates, insists that it does use Constructionline on a regular basis, despite industry rumours to the contrary. A working party has been set up in conjunction with Capita to encourage its use. However, NHS Estates admits that it is not obliged to use the service and cannot force the extensive network of individual NHS trusts to use it either.
Can it be saved?
In response to the barrage of criticisms, Capita is now planning a series of improvements. In its letter to Latham, Capita promised a big campaign to attract regional clients and firms. "It will be our intention to step up local publicity and contact with all construction organisations in a region in conjunction with the registration of a local authority, housing association and NHS trust.
"By focusing attention in this way we feel that we can achieve a greater level of penetration into the small contractor sector, thereby reducing the potential for clients to revert to their in-house list." Another idea is to create gold, silver and bronze standards of entry for firms. Companies that pass extra assessment could get extra star ratings.
If we used Constructionline, we would still have to carry out our own vetting of firms’ health and safety
David Miller, senior purchasing officer, building services, Glasgow council
Yet another idea, aimed at selling the scheme to the all-important small building sector, is for the National Federation of Builders to carry out technical assessments of its members.
More fundamentally, last week Capita entered talks with IT specialist Achilles, apparently in a bid to improve the database. Details on what the talks may actually lead to are sketchy, but the FMB's Stephens thinks they can only improve a service dogged by accusations of underperformance and failing expectations. "If any partnership between Constructionline and Achilles is established, that broadens the range of services available, it should enhance the value of Constructionline for companies and clients alike." Will the changes save Constructionline? Latham certainly hopes so. Responding to Aldrige's assurances that progress was being made, he wrote: "I am glad to hear that you are taking some action on this matter, because I believe that it is absolutely fundamental to retaining the support of contractors for Constructionline.
"I hear many grumbles that a firm 'is not getting any work because of Constructionline'.