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Robertson in a jam

Comment

Not so long ago the Highways Agency was the golden boy of public procurement. Its policies to drive down the cost of road planning, construction and maintenance were the talk of Whitehall with government department procurement teams queuing up to pick its brains.

How times change. The knives have come out and heads have rolled. The glory days of Early Contractor Involvement (ECI) and the Capability Assessment Toolkit (CAT) seem long ago.

Civil servants are well advised to look elsewhere for best practice.

Is it simply a sensible move to safeguard the public purse? Or is it a combination of fashion, politics and backside covering?

At the heart of the change appears to be the forthcoming review by the Nichols Group into the Agency's activities. This follows Agency chief executive Archie Robertson's mauling by the Public Accounts Committee last year for overspending and underdelivery.

And by all accounts the report is set to deliver a rather different verdict on the Agency's revolutionary approach to procurement. A verdict that, in particular, will condemn the ECI programme for failing to control costs on road schemes.

It is likely to highlight the fact that despite hundreds of such contracts being let there are, to date, few cast iron examples of real cost savings or real programme acceleration.

Which is not what Robertson needs to hear.

Overnight the architects of this apparent one time success, procurement director Steve Rowsell and major projects director Keith Miller are leaving the Agency. Gary Wright, the force behind CAT, has already left.

The explanation for this major reshuf is that Robertson needs to make the Agency more commercially astute. He needs a procurement policy and team that can deliver cost savings today rather than just plan for them tomorrow. And with another trip to the House of Commons Select Committee looming he needs to convince MPs that everything is in hand.

But while it's true that the rst contracts let under this procurement had their difculties, it isn't news. The National Audit Of ce has been through all that and we know how the Agency initially struggled to nail down the details and the industry struggled to grasp the concept.

As most contractors and consultants will testify, discussion with industry means that times have changed.

While the procurement process is not perfect it is heading in the right direction with a focus on proper planning and realistic target costs.

We should also not forget that the fundamental sticking point for most highway schemes - the cause of cost escalation - remains planning delay. And until government can come up with a more sensible, robust and swift way to convert its infrastructure policies from aspirations into buildable projects this will remain a problem.

So to condemn the Agency's policies out of hand would be to forget what a mess highway procurement was in before.

Surely Rowsell and his team must take some credit for the way they levered in private sector knowledge and experience to the bene t of the trunk road and motorway network and its users.

Ensuring we get good value for public spending is vital. The best way is to build up trust with private sector delivery partners. Sadly for politicians - and for civil servants - it's often a long-term process.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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