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Quebec dithers on price vs. quality, professionals charge

Don Wall
Quebec dithers on price vs. quality, professionals charge

Quebec’s engineers and architects have issued a statement demanding the provincial government clarify its policies on procurement of professional services to ensure major construction projects are assessed based on quality and sustainability, not cost.

Lending their support to the Aug. 13 plea were over 30 signatories to an open letter condemning what they said was the Province’s foot-dragging on the issue, referring to the inaction of a task force set up in August 2018. Notable supporters include John Gamble, president and CEO of the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies — Canada, Phyllis Lambert, founding director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture and Mike Brennan, CEO of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada.

The open letter criticized the government’s recent decision to ask an accounting firm to look into the “perception” among stakeholders that provincial policy favours price over professional qualifications.

 

The study being done by the government is about a ‘perception.’ We want to talk about facts,

— Andre Rainville

Association of Consulting Engineering Companies — Quebec

 

Association of Consulting Engineering Companies — Quebec (AFG) president and CEO Andre Rainville explained the advocacy effort was launched at a time when major contracts continue to be awarded but the government still has not clearly stated it values quality over cost.

“We need to put aside formulas that favour the lowest bidder to ensure the quality and sustainability of our infrastructure for current and future generations,” said Rainville.

A spokesperson for the government’s Treasury Board issued a statement to the Daily Commercial News denying the charges its procurement favoured price over qualifications.

“It is wrong to claim that the government does not support the competency-based approach,” wrote Antoine Tousignant of le Secretariat du Conseil du tresor, her comments translated from French. “Its’ objective is to offer public bodies various tools allowing them to adapt their acquisition strategies according to the contracts to be realized.”

The statement from the AFG and the Association des Architectes en pratique privee du Quebec laid out developments since June of last year that they say illustrate the government’s lack of commitment to qualifications-based procurement:

  • In June 2018, the former government proposed a review of the method for granting public architecture and engineering services contracts for Quebec’s two largest public-sector buyers: the Ministere des Transports and the Societe quebecoise des infrastructures. “All the new methods it offers invariably lead to favouring the lowest bidder,” the stakeholders argue.
  • In August 2018, the former minister in charge, Robert Poeti, responded to criticisms by stakeholders by withdrawing a draft regulation on procurement and setting up a subcommittee to study the awarding of public contracts in architecture and engineering. But no meetings have been held since December.
  • In April the engineers and architects weighed in, releasing an independent study from economist Martin St-Denis of consulting firm MCE Conseils that concluded that the methods proposed by the government favour the lowest bidder.
  • In the spring, the province assigned an accounting firm to assess the “perception” of some industry players on last year’s proposed amendment.

Rainville contrasted the hard facts contained in the architects’ and engineers’ study with the latest steps by the government.

“What we see at this moment is that the study being done by the government is about a ‘perception.’ We want to talk about facts,” he said.

“In the case of the study the government is making right now…this is not what we call a scientific approach. This is not based on security, quality, sustainability or anything else.”

Instead of merely studying perceptions, Rainville said, “The idea is to show that we have the right formula and to get the right selection you have to study the consequences of the formula, and the quality and sustainability of projects.”

The open letter cited one of Quebec’s most notoriously faulty construction projects, the old Champlain Bridge, which opened in 1962.

“The most eloquent example is that of the old Champlain Bridge, which must soon be dismantled after a short life and countless repair works, with the knowledge that the poor decisions that led to its construction were directly guided by a search for the lowest price,” the letter stated. Gamble commented, “Full kudos to AFG and their stakeholder partners across Quebec. We are constantly reminding government that you cannot measure value strictly in terms of price and that the engineering and design services at the front of the process need to be viewed as an investment to be leveraged, not as an expense to be minimized.”

The statement by the Treasury Board noted the Charbonneau Commission recommended that laws be standardized to allow public contractors to decide on the appropriate weighting of price and quality criteria in the contract award process for construction projects.

The subcommittee studying procurement is working with all stakeholders, wrote Tousignant. When its work is done, recommendations will be presented to the minister in charge of the Treasury Board, Christian Dube.

 

Follow Don Wall on Twitter @DonWall_DCN.

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