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June 19, 2009

Consulting Engineers of Ontario express need for stronger voice

OTTAWA

It isn’t every day that senior engineers from across the province spend an afternoon brainstorming.

But members of Consulting Engineers of Ontario (CEO) did just that at the association’s recent annual conference.

In a policy forum facilitated by consultant Bob Plamondon, some 50 engineers rolled up their sleeves, divided themselves into groups and debated a wide range of infrastructure-related issues.

Items on the agenda ran the gamut from why governments need to consult with engineering professionals on infrastructure investments to whether fundamental changes need to be made in the way such projects are planned, budgeted and delivered.

Participants also weighed in on such matters as how governments can expedite infrastructure spending while still maintaining reasonable controls and what a “rational and sustainable” long-term program would look like.

“Governments need help,” said Plamondon, who heads up Plamondon & Associates Inc.

“Who is better positioned to add value on infrastructure than engineers? But your opinions are rarely sought.”

During the course of the 3.5 hour workshop, engineers voiced their opinions on any number of issues, agreeing for example on the need for the industry to find a way to make its voice better heard.

Many felt Ottawa lacks a “clear, national vision” on what it is trying to achieve with its infrastructure investment program and that the emphasis on shovel-ready projects may be at the expense of a long-term strategic commitment to infrastructure.

Consultant selection processes also need to be improved, participants agreed.

Ultimately, the engineers’ comments will be “massaged” into some key messages which will form the basis for a position paper to be circulated to decision-makers in the infrastructure arena.

The session was a first of its type for CEO. President John Gamble said the organization made “a conscious decision” to hold the workshop.

“Historically, annual meetings tend to focus on business skills,” he said.

“But first and foremost, we are an advocacy organization. We wanted to take advantage of this once-a-year opportunity to elicit our members’ views.

“Policy development should be from the membership up and not from the top down.”

Jim McEwen, executive vice-president of community infrastructure at AECOM in Whitby found the exercise quite useful. “I was impressed at how passionately members felt about the issues,” he said. “But I think there also was a hint of frustration in that we’ve been saying for years that we need to establish a more sustainable funding approach for infrastructure renewal.”

McEwen, CEO’s newly elected secretary, said he would support future such exchanges of ideas.“I think one of the key points is that we (CEO members) are the practitioners,” he said. “We have first-hand knowledge of how infrastructure renewal should work and how it can best work to drive the economy.”

The theme of this year’s conference was policies and priorities for prosperity.

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