NSW Director Paul Davies writes in the Sydney Morning Herald on why Roads and Marine Services (RMS) need to invest in engineers.
If Barry O'Farrell wants to deliver the NorthConnex motorway without bankrupting taxpayers, he needs to ensure Roads and Maritime Services has sufficient in-house engineering expertise so that the government is an intelligent customer.
The announcement by the NSW Premier and Prime Minister Tony Abbott of the awarding of a non-competitive tender to build the $3 billion motorway might well be welcomed by some groups in the community.
However, for the engineers at RMS – the professionals who will oversee the design, scope and delivery of this and many other road projects – this news prompts a different response.
It is important to understand that road engineers face challenges on several fronts.
Firstly, RMS has lost 20 per cent of its engineering workforce through recent restructuring. These are the professionals who know how to build, maintain and deliver roads for NSW. They also know that taxpayers are not getting the best value for money under present arrangements. And they are facing off against a government about to abolish the instrument (Professional Engineers Award) that provides their terms and conditions of employment and sets the benchmark for the road engineering industry.
In a recent Australian National Engineering Taskforce survey, 93 per cent of private and public sector engineers said they believed that governments (of all types) lack essential engineering capacity to deliver projects on time and on budget.
When governments do not have sufficient in-house engineering knowledge and expertise, industry research shows that projects are delayed and that there is waste, cost blowouts, disputation between private and public partners and, most concerning, heightened risks and hazards to public safety.
Research undertaken by Blake Dawson in 2008, and confirmed by a Senate inquiry into the shortage of engineering skills (2012), showed that these problems resulted in 26 per cent of projects over $1 billion running more than $200 million over budget. Extrapolating that out, across all governments, it is estimated that $6 billion is wasted every year on contract disputes and other losses during project implementation.
For the $3 billion NorthConnex motorway project, this could equate to $600 million of taxpayers' money wasted, when the reality is that this state cannot afford to waste one dollar.
That is why we are calling on the O'Farrell government to invest in engineering capacity at RMS now. Any cuts to engineering capacity can only be seen as short-termism and lacking vision for the future of roads and infrastructure in NSW.
This is an argument that Professionals Engineers Australia is making to governments of all persuasions and one that is resonating with decision-makers around Australia. In our submission to the Commission of Audit, Professional Engineers Australia urged governments to invest in engineering capacity as the best way to derive the best value from infrastructure spending.
In handing down its interim report into the delivery of infrastructure, the Productivity Commission found that governments are wasting $1 billion a year through poor scoping and design practices, highlighting the pivotal role engineering capacity has in the delivery of large-scale infrastructure projects.
If Prime Minister Abbott and O'Farrell want to be recognised for their delivery of infrastructure, they need to get serious about building engineering capacity. And RMS is a pivotal place to start.