The geotechnical industry is often seen as fragmented, but its many different organisations now have a common objective: to raise the profile of its expertise among the civil engineering industry at large.
Former chairman of the Association of Geotechnical & Geoenvironmental Specialists (AGS) and director of Mott MacDonald Foundations and Geotechnics, Bill Rankin, believes that speaking with one voice is the only way that industry - in particular the site investigation sector - can move forward.
He believes that an industry that has tended to be too inward looking must now look outwards to clients with 'a comprehensive, unified attitude'.
An example of this thinking is the proposed 'merger' of the British Geotechnical Society with the ICE Ground Board to form the British Geotechnical Association in the new year. This has yet to be ratified by members, but in the meantime other initiatives are being developed and some, such as the AGS's Code of Conduct for Site Investigation, are reaching fruition.
The code, and its accompanying guidelines for good practice, are spearheading the AGS's campaign to raise awareness of the importance of good site investigation. Both were officially launched at the end of last year (GE November 1998), following 18 months of consultation with members.
Part of the implementation process was to get members to sign up to the code. So far, there has been 95% take-up. Rankin, who has played a major role in the code's development, says: 'It is not yet mandatory for members to sign up but it is what we are striving for.
'There has been a year of grace but if members have not signed up by the end of March next year, then we will have to say good-bye,' he adds.
He says this hard line approach has to be adopted if the standing of the industry is to improve. 'We have to be robust, it's a question of professionalism.'
'Promoting adequate ground investigation is nothing new, but it needs to be phased, to be properly supervised and to be signed off,' he says.
This can be achieved if proper procedures are put in place and, perhaps more importantly, if clients are aware of what good practice is. In fact, 'the driving force has been the clients, who asked what the industry was doing to achieve good practice'.
Key to this is the professionalism of individual practitioners. The clients' guideline document already sets out the training paths for various geoprofessionals, based on the management structure in the ICE Site Investigation Steering Group's working party report Site Investigation in Construction, published in 1993.
But because of the wide variety of disciplines within the ground engineering community, it is sometimes difficult for the client to know whether professional staff are suitably qualified and experienced for the job.
With this in mind, one of the AGS's aims is to encourage the industry to compile a national register of chartered 'ground engineering professionals' to help reassure clients that the person employed to advise them is recognised within a formal professional framework.
The register is intended to cover the broad spectrum of ground engineering professionals across the different routes to chartership and will also be based on key competencies and experience.
'Although it won't tell clients everything at least it is a starting point - to some extent it will be benchmarking of professionals,' Rankin says. 'It is important that specialists are not precluded just because they are not chartered civil engineers.' Clients should be able to make an informed decision on choosing staff.
The register should also encourage geotechnical professionals to strive for chartership through one of the appropriate bodies such as the ICE, the Institution of Mining & Metallurgy, the Geological Society and the Chartered Institution of Water & Environmental Management.
Rankin hopes that increased client awareness and confidence in the professionalism of ground engineering practitioners will encourage clients to include them in the early stages of projects, when setting up 'management structures' which include the appropriate specialists.
The code has now been vetted by the Office of Fair Trading - 'to check that we were not being too restrictive'. Part of the reason for it being given the green light was the association's commitment to self-policing.
AGS set up a business practice working group last year to develop a complaints procedure to accompany the code. Consultants, contractors and lawyers have all been involved in developing the document, which lays down various levels of breach of the code.
'It is important to have means by which we can handle genuine complaints but we have no intention of getting involved in legal wrangles,' Rankin says, adding that the code 'needs policing to give it credibility among clients, government bodies and the OFT'.
Another part of the policing process, which has been adopted in the US, is peer review.
'We have to look to the US and maybe build in peer review, especially of interpretative reports, after all it is the final product of a site investigation and peer review should stimulate good practice.'
He points out that large UK firms already have internal review procedures, but believes that 'external review would provide a second opinion for clients adding value at relatively low cost'. Some major clients, particularly overseas, already have their own peer review processes which are particularly active in the key early stages, he adds.
The AGS has also set up a group to consider benchmarking in geotechnics.
'Benchmarking is a key tenet of the Construction Best Practice Programme which is being promoted by the government following the Egan report. The intention is to develop a series of benchmarks against which geotechnical practice can be assessed,' Rankin says.
A revised version of the code is about to be published and distributed to members and clients, but it is not the end of development.
'It is a live document,' Rankin explains. He expects to see it updated every couple of years and hopes that it will 'tightened up' in the future. The importance of feedback from both members and clients should not be underestimated. Lessons should be learnt from experience of using the code, he says.
'It is important to publicise what works well and what adds value for the client as well as identifying means of significantly reducing clients' risk.'
Rankin believes that proper implementation of the code can work to improve the state and profile of site investigation in the UK. 'We have to lead by good example but the community has to be proactive to encourage clients to insist on quality.
'We need to recognise that it all starts with the client and have to convince them of the benefits of good practice. We have to work from within to improve standards and procedures. We all have to be ambassadors of the industry.'