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What's on the agenda

SITE INVESTIGATION: The new chairman of the Association of Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Specialists, Keith Gabriel, has some big ideas to improve the lot of members and the geotechnical industry at large.

Site investigation quality, the civil engineering skills shortage, contaminated land regulation and guidance and procurement methods are just some of the issues that Association of Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Specialists (AGS) chairman Keith Gabriel is aiming to tackle over the next two years.

Gabriel, technical director of Weeks Group, took over the chairmanship in March. He has a clear view about where the association's strengths lie and how to build on its achievements since its formation in 1988. Its initial aims were 'to promote and enhance the quality of professional practice of geotechnical engineering, to ensure close liaison between organisations operating in the field of geotechnics and to champion the views of the British geotechnical industry both in the UK and overseas' Gabriel says: 'The AGS's increasing focus on commercial issues, such as loss prevention and risk management, has given it a separate role to the learned societies.

'That role has been formalised more recently as the AGS transformed itself into a 'fully fledged' trade association with a code of conduct and disciplinary procedure [GE September 1999].This is why the association has been so successful.'

From the 12 founder members, the association has grown to a membership of 117, consisting of geotechnical firms and individual professionals, as well as people with a vested interest in the sector.

'The trend [for membership numbers] is slightly up and I hope it will continue to increase, ' Gabriel says.

He estimates that the chairmanship will take up to a quarter of his professional time. He will certainly have to pack a lot in. A brainstorming session of the AGS committee in September last year identified a number of important issues, which were prioritised using a scoring system.

A membership survey via the association's website followed in the autumn, to establish views on its activities and future priorities. Findings were used to put together a strategy for the next two years, Gabriel explains.

Top of the list was site investigation quality, an issue that has dogged the industry for many years.

'It is still a big issue, certainly since I've been involved, ' Gabriel says.'Rates remain extremely competitive, restricting investment in new equipment and techniques. We must continue to encourage clients to consider best value rather than lowest cost.'

The AGS benchmarking initiative will help clients appreciate the effect this attitude has on quality, he adds.

'And it will encourage practitioners to ensure they are complying with AGS good practice guidelines.'

Benchmarking will be based on project performance and not company performance, he says.These are based on critical success factors and seven key performance indicators (KPIs) which are in turn based on the AGS site investigation code of conduct.

Critical success factors include:

identification of ground hazards provision for better management of ground risk provision of better value for clients and users efficient processes which continuously improve provision of relevant, reliable information and effective supply chain management.

The KPIs are:

preparation - desk study and walkover survey design procurement management - project, risk and quality supervision reporting - factual, interpretative and ground model outcome - client satisfaction, project review and user feedback.

Each of the KPIs has between six and ten descriptors, producing about 50 data entries for a project. For the preparation KPI, these include 'no desk study undertaken' 'desk study undertaken' and 'documented report available' Each entry is given a weighted score and a scorecard produced.A maximum score will reflect AGS good practice guidelines and the norm score will represent industry practice.

AGS will set up a national database to benchmark site investigations in the UK, says Gabriel.This and the benchmarking procedure will eventually be run through the AGS website, with online data entry, automated updating, onscreen interrogation.The data will be regularly analysed to give an indication of how industry is performing and the benchmark reset every three months.

Members are also concerned about the rapidly changing legislative and regulatory climate, especially with respect to health and safety, contaminated land and standards of remediation for brownfield sites.

'The AGS has two roles - to represent industry views and to provide support and information to members, ' he says.

To this end, AGS continues to lobby government and client bodies and has set up three working groups to explore the issues surrounding contaminated land, loss prevention and health and safety.

A new document on guidance on health and safety issues is being written, which will include consideration of the CDM regulations. Due to be published this year, it 'will be updated at regular intervals, ' says Gabriel.

A particularly hot subject is the civil engineering skills shortage (GE April 2001).

'This is particularly severe for newly chartered engineers and geologists in their late 20s and early 30s because of a dip in recruitment during the early 1990s recession, 'Gabriel says.

'The issue is not unique to geotechnical and geoenvironmental industry and will be controlled by market forces, but there remains a role for the AGS, together with Ground Forum, to lobby government for action. The AGS must promote reward of careers in the industry if current trends are to be reversed.'

For geotechnics, the reduced funding of geotechnical MSc courses is a particular concern. Ground Forum has written to the government requesting a rethink on the grounds that civil engineering's 2% profit margin means that industry cannot fund these courses.

Past chairman Jan Hellings is continuing to lobby the minister responsible to reinforce this message, Gabriel says.

A major problem affecting the site investigation industry in particular is that of the quality of interpretative reports.

Sir John Knill has raised concerns about the poor quality of reports he sees when acting as an expert witness. In response the AGS has set up a working group to create appropriate guidance.

'Checklists are being compiled and these may be subsequently expanded to a full guidance document, ' says Gabriel.

The model document for geoenvironmental site assessments is also being reviewed.

Benefits offered by e-commerce and how they can be used to improve working practices is still open to debate.

'Major changes in supply chain management are already under way and are likely to accelerate in the next two years, ' says Gabriel.

But there is a lack of understanding, he adds.'Clients don't know what they want yet.'

This obviously makes deciding a strategy difficult, so the AGS is instead 'monitoring developments' and may prepare industry specific guidance for members, Gabriel says, 'once the situation has stabilised' Members are worried about changing business relationships including partnering and the blurring of the consultant/contractor divide.The AGS loss prevention working group is preparing a paper on the latter.

As for the association itself, Gabriel says more frequent regional meetings are planned, some with other trade associations and groups, to disseminate AGS guidance within the UK and overseas.

AGS is also maintaining its links with the ASFE and the AGS in Hong Kong, he adds, and will build contacts with similar trade associations in other countries.

As well as the regular newsletter, there will be improved provision of information and support for AGS' authorised representatives in member organisations.

Ultimately, Gabriel sees the AGS's key role as a voice of industry, lobbying government, clients and client groups on issues affecting its members.

'We are helping to change regulation, not legislation, ' he says.

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