Public-private partnerships (P3s) have transformed the way infrastructure is developed in Canada, allowing more widespread development while also controlling both cost and time to delivery. Realizing the benefits of the model, however, requires that it be applied to the right projects, and that it be applied in the right way.

John Gamble, President and CEO of the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies-Canada (ACEC), firmly believes that improving the way P3s are procured is to the benefit of everyone: the government agencies who own the projects, the private companies that build and operate them, and the Canadian citizens who live with them. “One thing about the consulting engineering sector is that a lot of our interests are aligned with the interests of Canadians,” Gamble says. “Particularly,  when it comes to public infrastructure, we’re talking about an investment in Canada and in Canadians. This investment connects communities, enables growth, and protects our environment.”

Quality and transparency

His suggestion for improving the procurement process boils down to two main ideas: qualification-based selection and transparency.

Qualification-based selection is the simple idea that minimizing cost is not the be-all and end-all of a good proposal. “We have to shift away from the notion that the lowest price is the best price,” says Gamble. “The right price is the best price.  Qualification-based selection rewards rather than penalizes innovation.  When you instead prioritize price,  it encourages people to minimally interpret the scope of work.”

In the long term, the innovative designs that a highly qualified team can bring to the table can actually be a substantial cost-saver, even if the up-front design and build costs are higher. “The design and construction is usually only 5 to 10 percent of the lifecycle cost,” says Gamble. “The majority of the cost is incurred maintaining and operating the asset over its lifecycle.And good design can dramatically reduce operation and maintenance costs for decades in the future.”

Similarly, standards of transparency in the procurement process can ensure that the government is actually getting the best value for their money, and that the public knows it. “Since, at the end of the day, Canadians are paying for these things, there must be some fundamental principles of transparency to enable public confidence,” Gamble says.  “The public has to know that their tax dollars are being spent in their interest and that it stands up to scrutiny.”

Learning to see

For these ideas to get off the ground, we as Canadians will need to renew our interest in infrastructure, training ourselves to care about things that we too often take for granted. “As a society, we live content in the idea that roads are natural phenomena and that electricity and water just come out of walls,” says Gamble. “Engineers are invisible until something goes wrong. We don’t stop and take notice of the complexity of infrastructure until we have a problem. That’s why it’s so important to get these projects right from the beginning.”
That our infrastructure is so often invisible is a testament to the men and women who design and build it.  If we want to see continued innovation and effective investment in infrastructure, however, we must learn to see and appreciate the invisible.  And we must let the government know we are looking and that we care.