Procurement based on Qualifications Based Selection (QBS) has been on engineers’ wish list for years, but the concept became the focal point of a full Parliament Hill lobbying effort recently by the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies — Canada (ACEC) during its Hill Day Oct. 25.
And with so much infrastructure spending promised by federal and provincial governments and notions such as resilience, lifecycle, innovation and sustainability becoming increasingly part of the discussion, QBS was also a recurring theme in most of the seminars and presentations the ACEC held during its two-day conference in Ottawa.
"QBS is a longstanding issue, and we have a federal government that is about to spend $120 billion on infrastructure," said John Gamble, ACEC president and CEO, commenting post-conference.
The target was revised to $180 billion by Finance Minister Bill Morneau on Nov. 2. "And decisions made today, we are going to have to live with for decades, perhaps a century. So it really ties into that theme of making smart decisions, making smart investments, to best leverage your return on investments. QBS is one element of making smart infrastructure decisions," explained Gamble.
He said with so many new MPs in Ottawa, getting the message across that procurement based on the quality of bids and the qualifications of bidders, as opposed to primarily cost, was important as the ACEC reached out to the newcomers. It's a strategy that requires top-down and bottom-up approaches, he said, referring to managers overseeing government procurement and backbenchers.
"We are hearing that there is an expectation of innovation, thinking outside of the box, doing things differently," Gamble said. "Unfortunately, procurement requires us to do the same thing the same old way."
The ACEC annual report distributed at the conference indicated, "ACEC is working to promote the adoption of QBS in several ways, such as raising political awareness of the issue at the federal level; directly engaging government departments that hire engineering firms; educating procurement officials to better understand the effects of their processes; and allying with other organizations that are also affected by current practices."
The message appears to be getting across, with several Canadian municipalities now indicating a preference for QBS.
James Paul, president and CEO of Defence Construction Canada, part of a clients' panel on Oct. 24, reported, "Right now, the selection process for any engineering design construction award is 90-per-cent qualifications based."
Gordon Hicks, president of Brookfield Global Integrated Solutions, another member of the clients' panel, said he saw progress on the issue as well.
"I think the government is much more focused on value, more and more so, so I think they are moving away from lowest cost and getting the best value for Canada," Hicks commented.
But there continue to be barriers, panellists noted, and many said the finger should be pointed equally at the profession itself for shortsighted behaviour.
"When we put in unusually low fees as an industry, we have to hear this, we are disrespecting our profession," said Gamble. "Basically we are telling the marketplace that's what we are worth.
"We have to have that adult discussion amongst ourselves."
The point was also made by Bob Gomes, Stantec president and CEO, at the leaders' seminar the same day.
"It starts with us as engineers," said Gomes. "Having respect for what we do. The last comment from the client was, it's not about price, it's about value. Great. We all believe that in the room. Then we go and submit proposals and we undercut each other.
"So the enemy is us. We as engineers have to step up and take responsibility for the way clients see our services and what they're willing to pay for them."
Following the leaders' seminar, ACEC board member Walter Orr, a senior civil engineer with Stantec out of its Inuvik, N.W.T. office, explained how he sees the process participating in bid processes in the north.
"As an industry we know how to bid low," said Orr. "You put inexpensive people, offer the lowest credible scope and bid low. None of that is in our clients' best interest long-term. Identify the best team, the best proposal, the best methodology, the best innovation and say, this is great. Then let's talk about cost."
Gamble and consultant Huy Williams addressed 42 ACEC members at the end of the day on Oct. 24 to prep them for their Hill Day encounters with 23 MPs the next day.