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It’s time that government gave engineers a proper hearing

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It’s time that government gave engineers a proper hearing

11th February 2011

By: Terence Creamer
Creamer Media Editor

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Many aspects of the New Growth Path (NGP) framework may well be revised over the coming months as the social partners pick it over. But there is little doubt in my mind that public infrastructure delivery will remain a central theme when the final version is eventually published.

The reasons are plain for all to see. There are massive backlogs in energy, water and transport infrastructure. Service delivery in many municipal districts is being undermined by decades of underinvestment and/or years of maintenance neglect. Dealing decisively with this pent-up demand for infrastructure could have material employment, industrial development and growth spin-offs. And there is also general societal consensus about the fact that the State should play a central role in planning for, as well as funding, the roll-out of appropriate social and economic infrastructure.

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That said, success, or otherwise, will have as much, if not more, to do with the country’s technical capabilities as with having the necessary political will and social consensus. Therefore, while lawyers and accountants will certainly play important facilitatory roles, the engineer will have to begin to occupy centre stage.

In my view, it’s now up to government to ensure such primacy of position for the engineer, and that it should help facilitate this elevation by starting to listen attentively to some of the concerns currently being expressed by leaders in the engineering sector.

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Last week, for instance, Consulting Engineers South Africa (Cesa) president Zulch Lötter expressed deep concern about the poor quality of capital-project planning within the public sector.

He also warned that the chronic problems of budget overruns and poor service delivery could grow further, unless departments took active steps to recruit and retain a better cadre of technical professionals.

Cesa estimates that the number of technical professionals in the public service has fallen over the past few years, from around 5 500 to around 1 500, and argues that the current dearth of technical leadership is lowering the quality of capital expenditure planning and project implementation.

Even project terms of reference being given to consulting engineers are “poorly written”, while scope changes and overruns are not confined to the implementation of projects, but are, increasingly, also common at the design stage.

“Our member firms find that there are very, very poorly written terms of reference and, therefore, you either price [the uncertainty] in, or, when you start doing the work, the prices are going to go up, because you have to define the scope as you go along,” Cesa deputy president Naren Bhojaram explained.

When taken together with the fact that the contractor sector is also desperately unhappy with how projects are being managed – not only by government departments and municipalities, but also by the State-owned enterprises – the seriousness of the problem is given even further weight.

If South Africa truly hopes to actually deliver on its scaled-up infrastructure aspirations, these concerns have to be taken on board and urgent efforts need to be made to find remedies. Failure to do so will result not only in higher prices and lower service levels, but also, ultimately, in the erosion of business and investor confidence and sow yet further seeds of citizen discontent with government.

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