On March 28, I wrote to the Minister of Municipal Affairs, Regions and Land Occupancy, Laurent Lessard, to let him know the OIQ's concerns about Bill 131, the bill passed on December 10 that amends various laws concerning municipalities.
Bill 131 does away with the possibility of awarding peer-to-peer contracts for the supervision of work done by consulting engineers who have prepared the designs, a subject that touches on the broader issue of the engineering contract award process used by municipalities.
Kathleen Lévesque, journalist for Le Devoir, caught wind of this, interviewed me and published an article about Bill 131 on April 6, followed by two others on April 9 and 13, in which she mentions our intervention. As a result of these articles, we at the OIQ feel it is essential to make it abundantly clear why it was important for us to write to the Minister. I should mention right away that the OIQ took this action in the public interest, which means the capacity of municipalities and their citizens to obtain sustainable, quality infrastructures at a fair and reasonable price.
The government's objective is to obtain the best price for the supervision work through a competitive bidding process. We clearly understand this decision and its legitimate objective. But this process causes more problems than it solves. I will explain.
First, the purpose of supervision and why it is essential must be understood. Supervision has two objectives. The first one is to ensure that a structure is built according to the plans and specifications prepared by engineers so that it is safe and reliable. I should not have to stress the incredible risk involved for the public when a structure or engineering work is poorly built. The second objective is to ensure that all changes made during construction are reviewed with the engineers who prepared the designs so that the structure remains reliable and meets the needs of the client. This usually involves a lot of changes because it is impossible to account for all the possibilities in advance and the conditions for executing the work often have their fair share of surprises. This means that the engineers who did the designs have to review their plans and make new calculations. That is why it is essential that they be involved in the supervision process.
Two things will happen now because of the new rules. Either the engineer will submit a price for both the design contract and the supervision contract, or the municipality will launch a separate call for tenders for just the supervision contract, which may mean that a different engineer wins the contract instead of the engineer who prepared the designs. But neither of these scenarios is ideal.
In the first case, the engineer will have to submit a price for both the design contract and the supervision contract. The problem is that the cost of supervision work is often very difficult to determine before the design is prepared because its cost strictly depends on the solutions and technologies that are selected for the project. Since the lowest price usually wins these competitive bidding processes, the budgets for supervision will be quite tight and based on approximations. As a result, they may be insufficient, which could lead to a truncated supervision process or even cost overruns.
Launching a separate call for tenders for a supervision contract is also not ideal since the designer may not be involved in the supervision process. The engineer who wins the contract will then have to become familiar with a design developed by others, which will take time and increase the risk of error, not to mention professional liability issues. In both cases, citizens will come out on the losing end.
Reviewing the competitive bidding process in its entirety For the Order, the entire competitive bidding process used by municipalities for engineering services must be reviewed, not just parts of it, which is the case at this time. The municipalities are the only government organizations in Québec that still use a formula that gives priority to price and often at the expense of quality.
Many public organizations have taken different approaches that give priority to quality but still rigorously control prices. Better practices exist in Québec, Canada and abroad. Why not draw inspiration from them?
Translation of the letter published in Le Devoir newspaper on April 19, 2011