It’s not just about the money!

Our previous FiTZ INDEX identified a sector ready and willing to accept the significant technology changes of the next few years, and already braced for BREXIT impact. This time it reveals a deeply held frustration about the way the sector is currently organised, annually funded, and the negative role that public sector procurement plays in constraining innovation, at a time when productivity and optimum returns from investment in highways services are more needed than ever by the government.

Some of the reasoned arguments around the flawed economics of sector funding which led to the creation of the 2017 Wolfson Prize do not appear to have resonated with the respondents. On whether road charging or government funding is the future for highways our industry looks divided on a scale similar to Brexit!

One issue the sector is not divided on is the need to reorganise the geography of service provision. There was almost unanimous belief that local highways authorities need to get away from the annualised funding which constrains effective forward planning and opportunities for innovation.

Even more surprising perhaps is the high numbers who believe there are far too many local highways authorities. Remember that this FiTZ INDEX response contains a high percentage of local government clients, is this result actually turkeys voting for Christmas? Or is it perhaps a deep frustration felt by professionals working at the sharp end of the industry that we could simply do better by rationalising the geography and realising that journeys cross many boundaries?

I think it’s time to stop pandering to politicians vanity about local representation and start to get on with bold ideas such as joint asset and joint network management, over a fit for purpose, much smaller network.

The last question in the survey also elicited a vigorous response, especially those who identified themselves as SME’s in the industry. 80% felt strongly that procurement rules were not optimising new thinking and innovation (and remember this is a sector where the government believes significant productivity gains can be made from innovation).

Many public sector organisations will talk about getting SME’s involved at the top table, and encourage participation in bids, but many smaller businesses then fail to get through the procurement qualification for reasons of lack of scale or financial robustness, no matter how good their offer.

The client might then still claim to want access to these skills or products through one of the qualifying bidders (usually international players), which sounds great. Or the T1’s will come to you to involve you in their bid, which also sounds attractive. A lot of detail about the potential innovation and offer is supplied for the bid yet the potential value of the offer can become diluted, distorted or even appropriated if the worst stories are to be believed.

This sentiment is echoed in some of the responses to the question, and the current procurement rules appear to act as a real disincentive for smaller suppliers. In many cases it can drive innovation completely away.

What seems clear from the FiTZ INDEX is that a large proportion of the experts working in the industry agree that if we want to make the sector work efficiently we need to think differently.

Government and all players need to willingly challenge some of the orthodoxies that have prevailed over the last 20 years, across the sector, wherever they are, and so reset our expectations and ways of working. This includes changing the way the sector is organized, funded, and how skills are procured, and subsequently deployed.

Click here to view the full results.

  • Brian Fitzpatrick
    Principal Advisor