‘Warts and all’ commentary is key to Playbook’s success

If the industry can see progress against a detailed action plan, they will start to believe the Construction Playbook has the potential to be a ‘gamechanger’, says Paul Morrell
The Government needs milestones to demonstrate the Playbook’s success (image: Dreamstime)
The Government needs milestones to demonstrate the Playbook’s success (image: Dreamstime)

As noted in my previous article, the Construction Playbook has plenty of good intentions. How can these be turned into an action plan with a fair chance of success?

First, if the Playbook is being presented as a strategy, it lacks some of the essential qualities of a strategy worthy of the name.

Foremost among these is a detailed action plan, and a timeline with interim milestones to demonstrate that government is doing what it said it will do. Programmes which outlast the electoral cycle struggle to gain the attention of politicians, and practically no ministers stay in place long enough to see the outcomes of their own actions. It is folly to imagine that they ever will.

So, we need milestones that enable ministers to say that they are doing what they said they would do, and that the actions necessary to produce better outcomes are being taken.

It also should be recognised that this will be a long process, and while some are looking for a “revolutionary moment”, that is not going to happen across an industry of such scale and diversity. The Playbook itself acknowledges that it is just “the start of a journey”, in Strictly Come Dancing style and, to stretch the analogy, the glitter ball is still some way over the horizon.

"Government needs to develop a precise understanding of how built assets deliver value for money in the provision of its services”

Next, there needs to be a clear commitment of adequate skilled resources – and those need to be public resources where the market will not deliver, or where anything that it might deliver would otherwise remain a private good. For example, all of the ambitions (one might say over-ambitions) for digital twins are never going to be delivered through the organisational structure and resources currently dedicated to the exercise.

These resources then need to address the missing links in the Playbook’s propositions. These include the promised “Project Scorecard” and related KPIs; a new benchmarking data hub and updated guidance on “Should Cost Models”; a review of “the landscape of frameworks”; the consideration and scrutiny of payment mechanisms (and how on earth government, as a customer of the industry is to define, let alone ensure, a “fair return” and “a healthy market”).

Many of the generalised statements of good intent also need the “How?” questions answered.

For example, what is a workable protocol for early supply chain involvement that identifies who might usefully be involved, and upon what basis? It is not practical to hire the Albert Hall on every project, and then ask: “Anybody got any ideas?”

By the same token, those who do have good ideas will be reluctant to table them in advance of establishing ownership of the idea (and the Playbook does recognise the importance of intellectual property) and some commitment to remuneration or an appointment – particularly noting that the flowchart shows such involvement in advance of the project even being advertised, let alone procured.

“What is a workable protocol for early supply chain involvement? It is not practical to hire the Albert Hall on every project, and then ask: ‘Anybody got any ideas?’”

However, the most necessary and most challenging of all of the work still awaited is this: if value really is to take over from initial capital cost as the prime determinant of both what should be done and who should do it, then government needs to develop a precise understanding of how built assets deliver value for money in the provision of its services.

This will differ from department to department – so the pressure to centralise procurement should be resisted, as those who regard procurement as a stand-alone process, rather than as part of a system that demands an understanding of the product, spend much of their time destroying value. It will also change from government to government, each of which is free to change or tune definitions of value, as that is one of the things that we elect them for (on which subject it is consequently reasonable to expect priorities to change between marginal seats and secure ones).

There is work in progress on this. The Playbook promises a new “Project Scorecard”, and it refers to the Construction Innovation Hub’s “Value Toolkit” – although without being clear that this is the basis upon which departments will establish the “value profile” for each project or portfolio.

Some of the framework operators (such as Pagabo and Scape) are also working on value calculators. Frankly, the last thing we need is a market in methodologies, but the Construction Innovation Hub’s toolkit shows just how difficult it is going to be to develop something that is tuned to the complex requirements of different users and programmes without disappearing down a rabbit hole.  

In the meantime, we are a very long way from having an informed, universal method of calculation of value for money beyond Treasury generalisations – and it is worth remembering that procuring for value for money has been Treasury policy for decades.

So again, the problem is not “whether, but “how?” and to date not even benchmarking (a critical part of the 2010 strategy) is so routinely practised as to deliver reliable information about what things currently cost, let alone what they should cost or might cost while delivering higher value.

In short, those who criticise initial capital cost as the lowest common denominator need to find a superior denominator that is still common, but also sufficiently comprehensible to encourage adoption.

On the subject of why we elect governments, it is also for government to decide what contribution a contract can make to social value, and to be precise about how that might influence the choice between alternative offers.

The public sector’s attractiveness as a major client of the industry will only deteriorate further if bidders see all of their efforts in assembling what they believe to be a good bid overturned by a judgement that they could not see coming, and which even in retrospect they cannot see as objective.

Noting, for example, that 10% of a “balanced scorecard” will be allocated to judgements about social benefit, how can a bidder choose between a product manufactured overseas that does the job at lower cost, or one manufactured in the UK that might underpin jobs at home, or one that claims to deliver a (possibly unproven) long-term energy benefit?

So, the dogma against inputs needs to be overcome, and the values attached to non-financial matters that might (and almost certainly will) vary must be calculated and declared on a basis that is constant, transparent and as objective as possible, so that bidders know what to shoot for.

“The Playbook does not mention corruption… and the fact is that giving people discretion to make judgements on a subjective basis opens the door to corruption”

To the greatest possible extent these variables should then be made a clear requirement of project delivery, ideally on a “go/no go” basis rather than as candidates for subjective judgement.

One issue that gets no mention at all in the Playbook is corruption. It does, however, have a paragraph to itself in the Cabinet Office’s Green Paper on Transforming Public Procurement, also published last December, and the fact is that giving people discretion to make judgements on a subjective basis opens the door to corruption. So individual discretion may well be a luxury that the private sector is entitled to, but which the public sector should approach with a very long spoon.

There also needs to be a feedback loop, so that an understanding of value is informed by real data, captured through structured post-occupancy evaluation. This earns only a passing mention in the Playbook, but if the focus is to be on improved outcomes, then no meaningful saving can be made by continuing to skip the expense of finding out whether that is actually what has happened.

At the moment there is a chicken and egg problem with moving the BIM framework onto the next level – which fundamentally means moving things beyond design and construction into the life cycle of a project. This is because there is a lack of data to load into the models; and because we don’t load the models, there is no systematised collection of data.

In a repetition of the energy put behind the BIM agenda a decade ago, government therefore needs to set standards of data that it requires to receive as part of the package of information provided for the management of an asset after completion.

Government’s priorities of recovery from covid-19, building safety and net zero carbon are all both understandable and necessary – but digitalisation is instrumental in all of those. What better way can there be (indeed what other way can there be) of preserving “the golden thread“, from project initiation through to operation? What better way can there be of keeping track of carbon, both embodied and operational?

Finally, there needs to be a constant, energetic and well-championed communications programme which demonstrates that government is sticking to its half of the plan and doing what is says it would do, and which calls upon the industry to do the same.

There will be many in the industry whose reaction to any proposition for change is that “we’ve seen it all before” – and, for the most part, indeed they have. The potential for scepticism will only be overcome by action, rather than by words – and although one of Mark Carney’s “great lies” of economic planning is “This time it’s different”, this time it just has to be.

The communications plan must therefore include a running commentary on a selection of projects that are to be handled in a new and different way, setting out precisely what those differences are, how they are being implemented and, in due course, how well they have worked. This needs to be a “warts and all” commentary, rather than a good news case study that is selected retrospectively.

If, through such a programme, the industry can see constant progress against a detailed action plan, then they will start to believe that the Playbook does have the potential to be the “gamechanger” everyone hopes for, and that this time it will indeed be different.

Paul Morrell is a former senior partner of Davis Langdon and was the UK’s first chief construction adviser between 2009 and 2012.

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