Canadian Consulting Engineer

Hiring practices raise debate

Qualifications-Based Selection "QBS" is a term that has been heavily promoted in recent years by ACEC and the provincial consulting engineering associations in Canada.

June 20, 2011   Canadian Consulting Engineer

Qualifications-Based Selection “QBS” is a term that has been heavily promoted in recent years by ACEC and the provincial consulting engineering associations in Canada.

The topic came up again at the Consulting Engineers of Ontario annual conference in London, on June 16. J. Patrick McNally, executive director of planning, environmental and engineering services with the city of London, explained that his city has been using QBS for hiring consulting engineers for many projects. The QBS approach requires that engineers and other consultants are hired based on their qualifications rather than on the cost of their fee. Effectively it means that the firm offering to do a job for the lowest price doesn’t necessarily get the contract.

One QBS procurement approach that the city of London has had great success with, said McNally, was in batching together routine annual infrastructure projects, such as repaving contracts. Whereas previously these kinds of jobs would go out as 8 or 9 separate requests for proposals, for the past four years the city has taken a new approach of identifying 10 projects and asking for one proposal for them all. The city selects one of these grouped proposals, then sits down with the proponents and negotiates the price.

McNally said they have found this approach works well and saves both the city and the proponents time preparing proposals.

However, during the next presentation by Dale Craig of J.L. Richards & Associates and the question and answer sessions, it was clear that qualifications-based selection is far from becoming an accepted practice.

Part of the reason is that “all municipalities are facing some pushback” regarding QBS, said one commentator. Faced with budget shortfalls, city politicians feel obliged to take a consultant’s price into consideration.

Dale Craig described a project his company had won for a large treatment plant under the terms of qualifications-based selection. However, another firm that had quoted a lower fee approached the city council, told them they had erred in not accepting their cheaper proposal, and lobbied for the work.

Eventually, Craig said the city council “did the right thing” and stuck to their first decision to hire J.L. Richards. But what made it particularly troubling was the fact that the other lower-bidding firm was actually a member of Consulting Engineers of Ontario.

This kind of behaviour “undermines QBS and puts client staff in jeopardy,” Craig said.

During the general discussion it was agreed that undermining the QBS process in the way that Craig had described was an ethical failure on the part of firms, and that firms should “not just talk about our principles, but live them.”

It was also agreed that consulting engineers must speak up and stand behind those public sector engineers who put themselves on the line to favour qualifications-based selection.  

One person in the meeting estimated about 10% of projects in Ontario are being procured by qualifications-based selection at present.


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