The testimony given by Michel Lalonde at the Charbonneau Inquiry in January must have caused shock waves to reverberate around consulting engineering firms in Quebec. A consulting engineer himself, Lalonde implicated not only his own firm but several of Montreal’s large engineering companies in schemes to inflate construction contract prices and direct the extra profits to various political parties and influential bureaucrats. While these are unproven allegations, the damage to the prestige and reputation of engineering companies is already done.
What are we in the consulting engineering industry to make of this turmoil? Many Quebec-based engineering companies have offices across Canada, so it’s not easy to dismiss it as a one-province issue.
First, we need to remember all the honest, hardworking individuals who make up the vast majority of people in consulting engineering. So many of them devote themselves to clients’ projects, working days of overtime instead of going home to their families, and sincerely doing their very best to ensure that the infrastructure they design is safe and will improve people’s lives.
Second, if the allegations are true, then companies have an obligation to tighten their internal systems to ensure that in future there is no possibility of things going awry. I’m not exactly sure what practical steps companies can take to ensure they acquire their projects by fair means or ensure monies aren’t diverted into the wrong channels, but it will require meticulous financial oversight and strong support at the executive levels.
Company executives also need to have a strategy in place for handling the media. So says Derek Holloway in our cover story, "Damage Control" (p. 26). Though he wrote the piece well before the Charbonneau Inquiry, Holloway says companies need to anticipate what they would do in a scenario where the public and the media are barking at the gate and want answers. He strongly advises against hiding behind doors and trying to maintain a low profile. Instead, he says, firms have to be accessible, open and honest – but also careful not to say too much.
One point Lalonde stressed during his testimony in Montreal is that the practice of paying officials in return for gaining influence was simply part of how things worked; it was a systematic aspect of doing business.
I have heard engineers say something similar about doing business in developing countries. Paying agents a personal "commission" it is said, is part of obtaining contracts. But the practice can – and has – got Canadian engineering companies into trouble. Some say that it’s not a black and white issue. These commissioning agents are often benefactors in their communities, leaders who not only get bridges built and water treatment plants constructed, but who also use their personal fortunes to pay for the workers’ kids to go to university, to ensure old women get medical attention, and who provide the villagers with a much needed spokesperson and leader.
Of course, the fact that a practice is systemic and part of a culture doesn’t make it right. It just explains how easy it is to get caught up in the wrong situations and to rationalize away any misgivings.