Early Contractor Involvement - the way ahead?

Early Contractor Involvement: the way ahead?

The name ‘Early Contractor Involvement’(ECI) first appeared around 2004 when the UK Highways Agency used it to describe an initiative that had been launched in the ‘Highways Agency Procurement Strategy 2001’ using another name, ‘Early Contractor Design’.The title 'ECI' and the Highways Agency strategy was adopted in 2005 by the Queensland Department of Main Roads in Australia where it is still in use today.

PIANC has a working group writing a report on ECI to be published in 2021 for the guidance of the use of ECI for the waterborne infrastructure sector. It defines ECI as:

ECI is a strategy (by whatever name) initiated by infrastructure owners (Clients) towards contractors, key supply chain members and stakeholders with the purpose of optimizing values in project delivery and objectives through their participation and knowledge-sharing in stages of project planning and design prior to execution contract award.

In the intervening years the application of ECI in procurement has also taken root in many other countries apart from the UK and Australia, including the US, Netherlands, Belgium, Japan, Norway, Sweden and Finland and it takes a few different forms which includes concepts of collaboration, partnering and alliancing, which are sometimes described as ‘collaborative working’.

Despite Australia being in the forefront in the use of ECI back in 2005 sadly today little use and application of ECI is seen in the construction sector and the marine infrastructure sector in particular. The last landmark projects being Port Phillip Bay Channel Deepening and Fremantle's Inner Harbour Dredging back in 2010.

Marine infrastructure projects share characteristics with projects in other transportation sectors such as rail and road, including:

The need for consultants to develop designs to take into account construction methods and equipment

The need to identify the type of equipment to be deployed early in the permit and approval process so that any environmental permit can be tailored to the likely equipment used in the construction phase;

The impact of some design decisions being significant in regard to cost, time and performance

The vital importance of good geotechnical information which accurately represents the project's ground conditions as this ultimately impacts on the execution of the works, the choice of materials and the type of design. So seek contractor input on the type and scale of geotechnical investigation that is needed.

It has to be realised by contractors that a wish for wholesale adoption of ECI for every marine infrastructure project is a utopian dream. It is simply not practiced by Client organisations who always strive for the lowest tender price nor do a lot of government organisations allow it in their existing Public Procurement rules.  However a two-stage procurement approach to contracting (with competition) can satisfactorily deliver what is needed, then it is unnecessary, possibly counterproductive and usually difficult to justify in terms of procurement regulations for a Client to adopt a procurement strategy based on ECI.

I would suggest that the application of ECI is particularly justified on projects where the potential project requires contractor input on the scope of the geotechnical information which is needed; where choices need to be made in the equipment defined in permitting and licencing phase; where the project involves innovative techniques or materials or if the project is to be achieved in unusual and challenging conditions.

In such situations there is scope for ECI to achieve improvements and effectiveness during the early phase of the project which will have added benefits in the design and construction phases.

This article was published by 

David Kinlan