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We will if you will

Paul Morrell

A need for stronger institutions and more assertive collaboration within the industry came out strongly in the Edge commission's inquiry into the future of construction professions. Its chairman Paul Morrell looks at its findings

Over the last year built environment think tank the Edge has been holding a commission of inquiry into future professionalism in the construction industry. Under the chairmanship of the former government chief construction adviser Paul Morrell, the commission has now published its report.

Collaboration for Change considers the status of the construction industry professions and examines their fitness for purpose for a world very different from that of the mid-19th century – when the first professional institutions were formally constituted. 

Presentations to the commission were both wide-ranging and diverse with frequent differences of opinion – some of them quite pointed. Though unanimity was rare, conclusions emerged upon which there was something close to a consensus, leading to the following summary.

Institutional responsibilities

The professions have shown themselves to be adaptable, and there is every reason to believe that they will continue to be so. Nonetheless, the threats and pressures for change that they face are real and profound. Ironically, one of these is the increasing ‘professionalisation’ of more recent occupations, so clarity on what differentiation a professional designation gives is needed. 

The distinctive attributes of a professional Institution are that it underwrites a level of competence on the part of its members; assembles and develops a body of knowledge; sets and ensures compliance with a code of ethics; and owes a duty to the public interest.

In addition the distinctive attributes of a professional are the ability to assemble and process right and relevant information relating to their specialist area of practice; exercise judgment in processing and interpreting that information and convert that analysis into a recommendation for policy, decision or action.

Although a body of knowledge is an essential attribute of the professions, the organisation of research and its dissemination is generally not well handled across the industry. Its institutions’ codes of conduct are randomly (and unnecessarily) variable, and members lack guidance as to their interpretation in day-to-day practice. The sanctioning of members who are in breach of the institutions’ codes also lacks transparency so is of limited benefit to the public. A duty to serve the public interest, and the extent to which that duty is passed down below the institutional level to members, is also highly variable; and this raised the question to which no convincing answer emerged: how can professionals do what they consider to be the right thing, if that is at odds with the wishes of their client or employer?

Working together

It is critical that the professions maintain or regain their legitimacy by engaging in some of the great challenges facing society as they relate to the built environment. Legitimacy would be increased by including the wider public on issues directly affecting them and replacing, or at least supplementing, exclusivity in favour of inclusivity. The scale and breadth of many of the challenges we face extends far beyond the reach of a single profession, and the institutes must consequently act collectively.

Many younger professionals believe that the institutions spend too much time looking backwards, and inwards, and lack both foresight and leadership

The call for collaboration across the professions at institutional level was as close to unanimity as any of the issues raised – but so was recognition that it proves more challenging at institutional level than in day-to-day practice. There is no realistic prospect of a single institution for the built environment professions, but there is a need to agree a series of critical topics on which to collaborate. Many younger professionals believe that the institutions spend too much time looking backwards, and inwards, and lack both foresight and leadership. There are three issues in particular about which there was a powerful consensus in favour of cross-institution collaboration.

These are the silo-based nature of the industry and its effect on the offer to clients and the performance of its products; the challenge of climate change, and the belief that the institutions could be far more effective if they championed and addressed the issue collectively; and the absence of a feedback loop in the industry, with a consequent gap in the performance of built assets.

The last of these is a topic in itself, and the difference between the promise and the performance of the industry’s product was widely equated with mis-selling. It would be a source of scandal in any other sector, and should be in construction.

In the extreme, institutions risk losing control of the very things that are claimed to differentiate their members from non-professionals and the accumulation of forces for change is such that, although not yet amounting to an existential threat, has the potential to be so. This is balanced by an opportunity for the professions to capture the best of the values of their past, while being relevant to 21st century circumstances and valuable to their members, society and the challenges we face.  

Collaboration for Change will be available on the Edge website from 18 May.


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