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Confidence wins vital government infrastructure support

A friend of mine has a job that revolves around gazing at large screens indicating the fortunes of companies on the markets around the world.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor
He's got six plasmas at work and six identical ones at home. And they twinkle provocatively in green or red, depending on the myriad of complex market forces.

Frankly, I don't really understand what he actually does. Last time I saw him he had "a number in the States coming in at lunchtime" and "a few positions" that needed to be worked somewhere...or was it somehow?

Clearly, he studies companies and speaks to people to find what's hot around the world. But, from what I can gather, aside from a few realities about performance, the process largely hinges on confidence and, more precisely, the feeling of confidence about the future.

So what actually creates that confidence? What makes people want to buy into one idea but not another?

It got me thinking about civil engineering projects and how we generate confidence.

Past success is, of course, key and this week’s British Construction Industry Awards clearly serve to remind us that the UK really does have some outstanding design and project delivery talent. We saw not just a handful but literally dozens and dozens of great success stories.

And success does breed confidence. It can be no coincidence, after all, that just as the High Speed 1 rail link was successfully completed, Gordon Brown made his long-awaited decision on Crossrail.

For, despite the construction industry's predication towards spending too much money and taking too much time, the government has enough confidence in our performance to green-light a £16bn, largely publicly funded project.

But success alone is not enough to generate this kind of confidence. That fact is that while past performance is important, increasingly what really counts is our ability to also sell our past performances to the people that matter.

On this issue Crossrail boss Doug Oakervee must be congratulated. From the start he set out very deliberately to ensure that the Treasury and Department for Transport civil servants really understood what he and his team were doing at Crossrail. He went to great effort to separate their preconceptions about civil engineering project planning, financing and delivery from his reality.

He broke down the barriers and communication taboos to help government advisors understand the technical issues, and to underpin the whole negotiation with engineering fact. And with engineering confidence.

So armed with this new confidence and notion of how engineering could help, the once feared Whitehall mandarins soon became allies. Allies that then worked hard to pass on this confidence and convince the politicians.

We need to create more of these allies.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor.

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