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We need to make the civil engineering voice heard

So did you do it? Did you put your name forward as a potential chief construction adviser to the government? Or perhaps you put forward the name of someone else instead as a worthy candidate to represent the industry in the corridors of power.

Well I hope so. As I pointed out last week this is a unique and long-awaited opportunity for the industry. At last we could gain some serious political representation and, as such, it is vital that the right candidate is encouraged forward into post.

This need for better and more organised political lobbying and advocacy was a recurrent and passionately raised issue at last week’s FIDIC conference. In short, as the conference heard, we need to invest more energy, more expertise and − perhaps more importantly − more cash in the process of getting our views and needs across.

The general acceptance was that, while engineers are very tough negotiators when dealing with clients and the supply chain, when it comes to politicians, they are rank amateurs the world over.

“While engineers are very tough negotiators when dealing with clients, when it comes to politicians, they are rank amateurs.”

Does this really matter? Well in short, yes it does. Engineers have a role to play when it comes to crucial issues such as the sustainable development of infrastructure, and so it is vital that our contribution to the debate is heard.

The problem is perhaps largely cultural. In contrast to many other sectors, we simply don’t seem to see the promotion of our professional interests as something that we should be involved in. If we do it at all, it is usually low key, unplanned and untargeted.

And, other than in the US, where the accepted model − scarily − is to fund candidates who support your cause and to make substantial political donations to ease the wheels of influence, the norm is to approach advocacy as an under-funded afterthought. We have to change because, while the business of infrastructure is measured in trillion dollar expenditure globally, our top firms are still minnows. Our voice is still quiet.

“While the business of infrastructure is measured in trillion dollar expenditure globally, our top firms are still minnows. Our voice is still quiet.”

Just compare the biggest engineering consultants with the giants of management consulting. Jacobs has 55,000 staff, Aecom has 45,000 and Atkins has 17,000. In contrast PricewaterhouseCoopers has 145,000 and KPMG has 135,000.

And even post-takeover of Parsons Brinkerhoff, the new giant Balfour Beatty will only have 40,000 staff.

A single-minded, clear, well thought out and professional approach to getting our voice heard is therefore vital. It requires integrity, knowledge, research, relationships and focus, but also a huge amount of determination. We have to learn the language of advocacy and we need to invest to ensure that our message is clear. And we have to work together to bulk-up the delivery.

We have to believe that engineers and engineering deserve a place at the top table of political decision-making and make it clear that we are the vital ingredient in effective government of the future.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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