The UK government is redefining its role as a construction sector client - with widespread and signficant consequences.
How governments procure their building and civil engineering projects has significant impacts on both industry practices and competences as well as wider outcomes for civil society. Stuart D. Green (University of Reading) considers the UK government’s new approach. It is contended there is little which has not been said before, and much which remains unsaid.
The Construction Playbook (HM Government, 2020) was launched on 8th December 2020 to define expectations, aims and procedures for the procurement of projects and programmes from the construction sector. The espoused aim is to reset the relationship between government and the construction sector. The stated aspiration is to be more strategic and less transactional. The UK Government has long since sought to exercise its purchasing power for the purposes of achieving two primary aims: (i) value for money, and (ii) improving the competitiveness of its suppliers (HM Government, 1994). The Playbook peddles back (slightly) on the rhetoric of competitiveness in favour of ‘industrial strategy’, a theme previously adopted by the Government Construction Strategy (Cabinet Office, 2011). But in truth there is little in the Construction Playbook which is substantially new beyond a few bells and whistles. The message is primarily aimed at those within the public sector responsible for the planning and delivery of projects and programmes.
The report will also be of interest for those on the supply side aiming to increase their involvement in public sector work. It is billed as a ‘compact with industry’, having been co-developed and endorsed by the Construction Leadership Council (and, rather more vaguely, the ‘wider industry’).
Coverage ranges from schools, hospitals and prisons to major infrastructure. Attention is given to programmes in addition to one-off projects. The notion of a ‘playbook’ is seemingly derived, not from the kindergarten, but from the domain of American football. In recent years the term has been widely adopted by management consultants, especially within the context of digital transformation (cf. Satell, 2017). The core idea is seemingly to specify a range of options, leaving the final choices to be made by the ‘players on the field’.
The main body of the Playbook comprises 12 chapters which unfold loosely along a continuum of define, procure and manage. There are 14 key policies extracted from the body of the report to provide an upfront summary. Cross-cutting priorities include ‘health, safety and wellbeing’, ‘building safety’ and ‘building back greener’. The report is inevitably constrained by its remit, namely the sourcing and contracting of public works. The adopted approach seems to have been to go for the easy wins, and to avoid saying anything which is even remotely controversial. The Playbook is heavily derivative of the UK Government’s previously published Outsourcing Playbook (Government Commercial Function, 2020). According to the Institute for Government (Sasse et al., 2019) many of the Outsourcing Playbook’s recommendations echo pre-existing policies. The contention is that such policies have long since been ignored because government departments have lacked the capabilities and/or incentives to implement them. Of the 14 policies outlined in the Construction Playbook, 9 have seemingly been directly carried over from the Outsourcing Playbook. The following 5 policies are ostensibly new:
It is appropriate to discuss each of the above in turn, prior to addressing the cross-cutting priorities.
There is seemingly a blind faith throughout the Construction Playbook in the benefits of adopting a ‘more manufacturing-led approach’. The belief is that this will improve productivity and deliver better value-for-money. The extent to which the belief is justified is at best contestable, and heavily dependent upon the way the terms are defined. Unfortunately, there remains little consensus on how either productivity or value-for-money might meaningfully be measured. There is nevertheless a strong commitment to standardise elements of design, and where appropriate, to use longer term contracts across portfolios. One of the tests is that a programme of works should have repeatable assets and/or strong potential for modern methods of construction (MMC). There is little comfort here for the advocates of vernacular architecture. The emphasis on longer term contracts - coupled with a presumption in favour of MMC - would seem to privilege prime contractors with significant capital assets. The same criticism has of course been repeatedly levelled at previous framework agreements favoured by government. In mitigation, the Construction Playbook offers warm words about SMEs while at the same time exhorting prime contractors to adhere to the Supplier Code of Conduct. SMEs are likely to remain unconvinced and marginalised.
The commitment to ‘harmonise, digitise and rationalise’ demand is embedded within the chapter on MMC which is offered as an alternative to ‘traditional methods’. The distinction between the two is however never quite made clear. The reality is that off-site manufacturing and prefabrication have such a long history they could easily be classified as ‘traditional’.
The Construction Playbook emphasises the need for public sector procurement to support investment in MMC and skills seemingly in ignorance of similar incentivisation schemes in the 1960s. The bolt-on reference to ‘skills’ reads like an afterthought. Indeed, there is a tendency throughout the Construction Playbook to commoditise the industry’s workforce as passive vessels for narrowly-defined skills which serve the cause of productivity (cf. Ness and Green, 2012). There is little interest in the provision of ‘good work’ as defined in the Taylor (2017) report. However, there is a strong commitment to health, safety and wellbeing with an expectation that they should be embedded within contracting authorities’ planning. This would have been a minimum requirement for the Construction Leadership Council.
More encouragingly, there are numerous references throughout the Playbook to the use of procurement as a means of promoting social value. The emphasis seems to lie on ‘encouraging employment opportunities, developing skills and improving environmental sustainability’. The targeted beneficiaries are ‘local communities’, although it is unclear how they are supposed to benefit from jobs shifted to remote off-site manufacturing locations. A more obvious policy aspiration would be to rationalise and harmonise demand for the purposes of incentivising direct employment. Numerous reports cite the negative consequences of the dominant system of multi-tiered subcontracting which often culminates in the use of transient self-employed labour (Industry Response Group Steering Group on Competence for Building a Safer Future, 2019; Cole, 2017; Donaghy, 2009; Gospel, 2021). Tier 1 contractors are hence largely divorced from the physical task of construction, with little incentive to invest in training and skills development. The advantages are obvious in that it reduces overheads and enhances flexibility. The system has also hugely benefitted from a reserve army of migrant workers which ebbs and flows in accordance with the economic cycle. Strangely, the notion of modernisation does not seemingly apply to the industry’s employment practices. Rather than being behind the times, it could easily be argued that the construction sector has been an innovative forerunner of the gig economy (Erlich, 2020). The Future Skills report (Construction Leadership Council, 2019) notably called for the incentivisation of direct employment through procurement. Yet there is no mention of this in the Construction Playbook. The government’s commitment to labour market ‘flexibility’ is seemingly irrevocable, despite the widely acknowledged devastating consequences for quality, safely and employment conditions. The widespread prevalence of self-employment in the construction sector is also widely held to have a detrimental effect on training in support of net zero carbon (cf. Clarke et al., 2020; Killip, 2020).
The dominant discourse of the Construction Playbook is that of technological optimism. There is seemingly little value attached to those who engage with the materiality of construction. Many people who work in the construction sector take great pride in their work for its own sake. The perennial challenge is to ensure that this pride is enhanced by the experience of working with new technology, and not diminished (Sennett, 2008). The purveyors of modernity seemingly place more pride in their digital models than in the materiality of what gets built.
The Construction Playbook contends that the volume of data relating to construction is rapidly increasing, and argues that improving its consistency and quality will be ‘transformational’. Particular reference is made to improving safety, enabling innovation, reducing costs and supporting more sustainable outcomes. Data is of course important, but it is not the same as knowledge. The meaning of data is entirely dependent upon our ability to interpret it.
Reference is made to the UK Building Information Management (BIM) Framework and the need for BIM interoperability. There has been significant progress in the digitalisation of the construction sector over the course of several decades. The Playbook alludes to the current drive for an ecosystem of connected digital twins across the built environment. There is seemingly always yet another technology which must be adopted and disseminated before we reach the pot of gold at the end of rainbow. Meanwhile, the problems of the construction sector remain stubbornly immune to technological solution. Productivity remains low, quality is consistently poor, and the roles and responsibility for ensuring building safety remain unclear (cf. Hackett, 2018).
The point is not to argue against the onset of digitalisation. However, there is need for a much more balanced debate than currently prevails. The advocates of digital transformation too easily come across as a quasi-cult with entry barred to those who do not share their fervour for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (cf. McKinsey, 2016; Schwab, 2016). Dainty et al. (2017) argue that the overblown hyperbole in favour of BIM risks propagating an ever-widening digital divide. The danger is that with those who actually engage with (and care about) the materiality of construction become ever more disenfranchised.
Early supply chain involvement (ESI) is seen to extend the principle of early contractor involvement (ECI) by formally engaging the tier 1 contractor alongside tier 2 and 3 subcontractors and suppliers in the pre-construction phases. The notion of ECI dates back to the time when tier 1 contractors did not routinely sub-contract the entirety of the work to what is now known (euphuistically) as the ‘supply chain’. Contractors have always been in favour of ECI, but have consistently been wary of providing their expertise without being fairly compensated. Tier 2 and 3 sub-contractors are likely to be even more wary, despite the Playbook’s nebulous assurances about ‘trust’.
The Playbook further emphasises the importance of adopting a ‘mutually beneficial, open and collaborative approach’. The phraseology is seemingly borrowed from the long-since discredited concept of partnering (cf. Bresnen, 2007). Partnering was once lauded as the solution to the construction sector’s supposed adversarial culture. However, it can perhaps be more meaningfully understood as a discursive means of offsetting the risks associated with systemic outsourcing (Green, 2011). Such an interpretation is dependent upon an ability to remember the debates of the past. Government departments seem to have lost the capacity to learn from the past in the cause of becoming a more knowledgeable client. There was a time when key government ministries such as Health and Education contained their own specialist architectural divisions (Duffy and Rabeneck, 2013). Much of this expertise ultimately found its way into the Property Services Agency (PSA) before being spilt up and outsourced in 1993. The construction procurement expertise which once existed within government departments was hence shifted to the private sector where it was mobilised in the cause of commercial advantage (cf. Foxell, 2019). But nostalgia should be avoided for the way public sector procurement was organised in the past. The prevailing default preference for lowest cost tendering owes much to the Poulson scandal of the early 1970s (Jones, 2012). The PSA was also marked by its own corruption scandal which came to light in the early 1980s. Despite the Playbook’s emphasis on trust, corruption remains one the biggest potential threats to public sector procurement.
Here is yet another idea re-cycled from the past. Projects and programme are exhorted to ‘adopt an outcome-based approach focused on whole life value performance and cost’. This is seen to be the means of unlocking innovation and driving continuous improvement. It is further emphasised that clear and measurable outcomes should be set from the outset. Outcome-based specifications were previously recommended by the Government Construction Strategy (Cabinet Office, 2011) and can be understood more broadly as a response to the New Public Management (NPM) reforms of the 1990s (Sanderson, et al. 2017). The potential advantages which can be achieved through new models such as outcome-based contracting should not be dismissed, but neither can they be taken for granted. Simply stated, outcome-based specifications seek to incentivise contractors through the transfer of risk. In this respect, it is the very same thinking as that which underpinned PFI/PPP.
The transaction costs associated with outcome-based contracting tend to be very high, and government would (presumably) understand that any attempt at an unreasonable transfer of risk would be priced by the market accordingly. Outcome-based approaches are especially threatened by so-called black-swan events, otherwise construed as risks which could not feasibly have been foreseen. They also serve to distract attention away from the materiality of construction in that it tends to be the financial models which are celebrated, rather than the quality of what gets built. But even more damaging is the assumption that the required functionality can be determined in advance. Buildings are typically conceptualised as fixed and static entities which are designed and built in accordance with predetermined criteria. There is little attempt to understand buildings as socio-material practices which continuously play out and evolve over time (Brand, 1997; Patel and Green, 2020). The reality is that ‘value’ cannot always be pre-determined. Hence judgements made upon completion (or at any point thereafter) can only ever be provisional. Duffy and Worthington (1972) were making such arguments as long ago as the early 1970s. Yet the widespread belief that building performance (and hence ‘value’) is dictated by pre-determined criteria remains remarkably intact. The dominant view within government seems to be that procuring buildings is not especially different from procuring paper clips.
Cross-cutting priorities include ‘health, safety and wellbeing’, ‘building safety’ and ‘building back greener’. The Playbook requires contracting authorities to embed these priorities in their project and programme planning. Under building safety, it is asserted that the assets and facilities built by the construction industry also need to be ‘safe in operation’. It might have been thought that this was blindingly obvious even prior to the Grenfell Tower tragedy of 2017. The emerging insights from the ongoing Grenfell public inquiry point towards a systemic failure involving multiple parties. The Playbook’s aspiration of ensuring that ‘regulatory requirements are consistently achieved’ would therefore seem to fall substantially short of the required root-and-branch re-think of the way in which the regulatory system operates
The Grenfell disaster raises many fundamental questions about the way the construction sector operates, and the professionalism of those involved. The sector – and its representative bodies – cannot shy away from their responsibilities. But the tragedy also raises huge concerns about the role of the state in ensuring public safety. Of particular concern is the trajectory of deregulation instigated by the Conservative government of 1979, and subsequently continued by the New Labour government elected in 1997 (Beck and Woolfson, 2013; Boughton, 2018; Ewen, 2017). The advent of the ‘enterprise culture’ has undoubtedly had a significant impact on the way construction is organised, not least in the way it has allowed regulation to be cast as a barrier to innovation. Hence the Grenfell Tower tragedy not only calls into question the practices of the construction sector, but also the entire political economy within which it operates. Some would argue that the liberalisation of the construction sector has realised many improvements. It is certainly important not to look back on the 1970s with rose-tinted spectacles. Ultimately, the point which needs to be understood is that the built environment is forever delivered and managed within the context of an ever-evolving political economy. But serious questions remain regarding the extent to which its provision can be safely left to the unregulated mechanisms of the free market. The Construction Playbook makes no pretence at answering such questions. The real debate has yet to begin.
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