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Consulting engineers should seek more influence, says panel

As governments continue to pour money into infrastructure projects, consulting engineers are considering how t...


As governments continue to pour money into infrastructure projects, consulting engineers are considering how they can communicate better with bureaucrats to ensure that the funds are being invested wisely.

One of the latest in a stream of announcements from Infrastructure Canada listed 156 projects in Alberta that were being funded under the federal Infrastructure Stimulus Fund. To the tune of $550 million, the Alberta approved projects cover everything from construction of a local museum, to improvements in roads, lagoons, sewage and water treatment plants. The federal government has earmarked $4 billion under the Infrastructure Stimulus Fund over the 2010-2011 period for such short term infrastructure renewal projects, but it has promised another $8 billion in the same period in areas as diverse as First Nations infrastructure, school construction, federal laboratories, an improved rail system, bridges, harbours, federal buildings, border and aviation security, contaminated site clean-ups, and broadband expansions.

Knowing all this work is coming down the pipeline, panelists at Consulting Engineers of Ontario’s annual meeting held in Ottawa on June 2 a few weeks ago, grappled with how engineering companies could speak more effectively on how the money is spent.

One of the panelists for, “Influencing Public Policies and Priorities,” was John Boyd, president of FIDIC, the International Federation of Consulting Engineers. He is also a senior principal with Golder Associates in Mississauga, Ontario. Boyd said that while governments are pouring trillions of dollars into infrastructure, he was not aware of them consulting the industry itself on how it should be spent. Yet that would never be the case with health care spending, he noted.

Part of the problem, Boyd suggested, is that governments are thinking of engineering consultants less as trusted advisors, than as “transactors” doing the government’s bidding.

Boyd urged engineers to find more effective ways to communicate with the public. “We have a huge amount of information for government, but we don’t give it to them in a digestible form,” he said. “We need to start thinking about the client more, and a little bit less about the information.”

Another panelist, transportation consultant Carl Vervoort, has worked both on the consulting engineering side and for the provincial Ministry of Transportation. Like Boyd, he suggested that the relationship between the consultants and the bureaucrats has changed over the past decades, with consultants being seen more as corporate employees and providers of a service, rather than as consultants of passion and integrity.

He too gave advice on how to effectively communicate if consultants want to be sought after, trusted and effective advisors to government and private sector leaders and decision makers.

Vervoort’s advice went on the principal of “30-3-30.” When you have a message to communicate, you must prepare to give it in three different ways, he said. First, you can prepare a 30-minute speech to deliver to a captive audience, as he was presently doing. Second, you must be able to deliver the same message in three minutes to someone you meet in a hallway, or at a cocktail party. Last, you must have a prepared 30-second message you can give to someone you meet in an elevator.

In a workshop later, facilitator Bob Plamondon, of Plamondon & Associates, confirmed: “No single group is better positioned to advise government on infrastructure than consulting engineers.”