The Gap Between Authority and Expertise - BIM and Government Procurement

John Held , 12 April 2015

John Held reflects on the importance of the educated government client and architects that have a sophisticated understanding of the client organisation.

Reviewing draft documents on Project Team Integration and the BIM process in government procurement, soon to be published by ACIF and APCC, it struck me once again how important the educated client and the mature approach to risk are in successful projects. In writing Deskilling and Reskilling Architects, I had been thinking about how architects might survive and flourish in this new world of construction. Perhaps the two are connected?

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The gap between authority and expertise

If you draw a graph with authority on one axis, and expertise on the other, you can plot a typical project team.  The client representative should be high on the authority axis – they must have the ability to make binding decisions about the project through the initiation and briefing process. The architect, on the other hand, brings particular expertise to the design and construction process, so they naturally sit on the other axis. But, if the two are too far apart, can they communicate effectively? The client has little expertise in design and construction – and the architect has no authority and little understanding of the client’s organisation. This is particularly evident in Building Information Modelling (BIM) because there is a general shortage of expertise available and little client experience.

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Design thinking and increase in expertise

The obvious answer is for the client to increase their level of expertise, and the architect to increase their level of authority – not by being able to approve funding or briefing, but by being able to better understand the client’s organisation.

Why should the architect seek to be that ‘expert’? Should that not be a specialist BIM consultant? The engineer? Someone from the builder’s team?

I would argue that the answer is in the design thinking the architect brings to the process. Architects can do the technical bits – the briefing, the site analysis – but most importantly they can see the possibilities of the building before anyone else. The can see what it could be, which is not necessarily the sum of the bits of the brief the client put together.

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Client-side experience to fill the information gap

The BIM process demands that early understanding – a combination of free creative thinking and data-driven input, developed at the same time and in harmony with each otherWhat if the client can’t increase their expertise to the level required?  No outside adviser can (or should) have the authority delegated to them from the client to make the early procurement decisions. So in-house, client-side experience is important.  But it must come with commensurate authority to allow the communication and lines of authority to work well – there is obviously more risk of mistranslation of requirements.

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Client-side limited assistance – can’t fill the information gap

The client-side assistant, who might be keen but has little expertise and no authority at all, is of little use in bridging the gap. The Productivity Commission Report on Infrastructure reminds us again that we cannot expect government clients to make wise procurement decisions without wise people to make them. Those people must serve the public good.  Those public servants will be able to deliver the infrastructure we need for the future of Australia. And architects will have a key role in its delivery.

Johh Held is ACA – SA President.