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Infrastructure blog

Why infrastructure policies need engineers' 'bigger picture' view

06 July 2021

As civil engineers, we are good at delivering projects, but do we understand enough about their background and context?

Why infrastructure policies need engineers' 'bigger picture' view
Infrastructure policymakers need civil engineers' input from the start. Image credit: Shutterstock

One way or another, we all work on infrastructure; whether design, construction, operation or maintenance. We solve problems and make things work – often without the public realising the complexity of our task. We sit in the background and don’t make waves.

We are good at the technical challenges, but how often do we take a step back and think about how our work or project fits into the ambitions of wider society?

Who is commissioning it? Why are they commissioning it? What are the political drivers? What do they want the outcome to be? What has changed since we started work on it?

This sort of questioning will help us deliver better projects, as we see the bigger picture, beyond our technical solutions. With so much of our infrastructure delivered through public bodies, it is important that civil engineers understand, and give professional advice to, the political process that drives infrastructure investment for our communities.

Manifesto promises

In the electoral cycle, manifestos are key to influencing and understanding infrastructure plans. They will contain broad aspirations, and sometimes, specific proposals on what needs done.

As engineers, this is an important time for us to get our message across to those standing for office. ICE Scotland, through its public voice activities, has been promoting four key areas for action to Scotland’s politicians:

  • Resiliency: auditing Scotland’s infrastructure to ensure it is fit for purpose, now and in the future.
  • Procurement: changing procurement policy so smaller contractors are not disadvantaged and the supply chain is supported, particularly at a local level.
  • Strategy: developing policies on infrastructure planning, investment and prioritisation must be for the long-term, not short-term political cycles.
  • Professionalism: utilising the expertise of ICE Scotland members in planning, designing, building, maintaining and managing our infrastructure needs to be recognised in policy development, delivery and procurement.

But manifestos are only promises at the start. The next stage is to understand the influence of policies.

Policies for delivery

Whilst manifestos contain promises, policy documents set out the priorities for an elected body. These can be very useful documents for engineers, as they lay out the background, reasoning and priorities in the years ahead. Policy is decided by politicians, developed by civil servants or officers, and implemented by agencies or other public bodies.

An example is the recent Scottish Government Draft Infrastructure Investment Plan, which sets out an investment hierarchy:

  • Determine future need.
  • Maximise use of existing assets.
  • Re-purpose and co-locate.
  • Replace or new build.

Understanding this hierarchy, which is set against the backdrop of post-Covid recovery, net zero emissions, inclusive economic growth and resilience, is vital if we are to understand what infrastructure investment will look like in the years ahead. We can see from this document there are no specific grandiose promises, or new flagship projects, but a focus on sustainability and being smarter with what we have.

Other, more detailed documents such as the recent National Transport Strategy 2, set out a more detailed, sector-specific set of priorities that will influence future investment. It’s all about what the project investment delivers - the outcomes - rather than the project itself.

Outcome focus

Our projects are the outputs, but the decision-makers are focused on the outcomes. We might have developed a clever technical solution, but that is not where their focus is. What are the economic, social or environmental benefits from the project? Will it bring benefits to our communities? How can this be demonstrated?

We need to be able to show our projects have been a success, so “before and after” assessments or measurements are important, enabling lessons to be taken forward in future investments.

Understanding the context of our work is vital, but so is influencing future decision-making.

What we need to do

If we sit back and don’t take action, our voice will not be heard. That creates a danger that manifestos and policies, and hence programmes and projects, emerge that do not benefit from early engineering input.

Our “big picture” skills are vital in scoping and reviewing politicians’ infrastructure ambitions to ensure they are wise and deliverable. In addition, we bring specialist skills in areas as diverse as environmental assessment, buildability and design for maintenance that are essential for successful outcomes.

In a rapidly changing world, good civil engineering delivers real benefits to our communities – it is important our skills are visible to decision makers.

  • Donald Bell, chair at ICE Scotland