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Focus on the big picture


My man on the Clapham omnibus - actually, Brian on the 8.17 - stormed onto the train this week, threw down his newspaper and said: 'This government; big ideas, don't develop them, just fiddle at the edges.' Well, words to that effect.

In a taxi later that day, the driver gave me his extensive views on how the country was being run. And in among the invective was one lucid statement that picked up Brian's theme: 'This government, too many big ideas. They should have concentrated on one thing and done it properly. Not all this talking and doing nothing.'

This is not going to be a political column so don't worry, although with an election any time in the next six months the views of the average man are about to become a lot more interesting to politicians.

No, it is about big ideas people, like those in this government. And it is about how, once they have had their flashes of inspiration, they need help in focusing on what to do with them.

I work with some big ideas people. I know this for fact, not just because they told me, but because that is how they came out in a BBC Science personality test we indulged in one quiet Wednesday afternoon. Under stress, we discovered, big ideas people will do anything but deal with the big idea. We are all like that, I know, but this is to extremes.

So when something has to get moving here one of them plays patience, one wants to go out for coffee and a chat, and the other buys a new electronic gadget to play with.

Similarly, the army is about to go to Baghdad, but the government is thinking about opening casinos. The transport system is a nightmare but all the government can think of to do is take 'soundings' from consultants. The NHS has so many problems, but instead ministers decide to spend £30bn on a new computer system.

These people need help.

Engineers' help. Engineers spend much of their time translating big, often impractical concepts from clients and architects into pragmatic, achievable end products. The difficult bit is to get the big thinkers to listen.

Well, nagging helps. Or, if you prefer, constant lobbying. 'This is more important than that.'

'You have to decide this now.'

'Why not try this option.' On and on. But it works.

The engineering profession has been accused in the past of shying away from dealing with the government like this, and for being almost too respectful.

But with the advent of the ICE's State of the Nation report, with its simple, strong assertions as to what needs to happen to the UK's infrastructure, clear messages are at last getting through to politicians.

This has been one of the successes of ICE president Doug Oakervee's year (see p22). Likewise Oakervee's Civil Engineer of the Year, David Anderson, has, by constant repetition, helped drive the issue of security of energy supply onto the government agenda. When there is a one page commentary in the Daily Mail on the subject, as there was on Tuesday, then you know it is a live issue, even though the government wants to ignore it.

ICE director general Tom Foulkes had the excellent idea that the government needed a chief engineering adviser. In the absence of a formal appointment ICE could do worse than develop the role for itself.

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