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Smoothing out the infrastructure lumps at Major Projects Victoria

Tim Bamford sees the role of the agency he has headed since 2012 as smoothing out the bulges in the state government’s construction pipeline.

“It’s lumpy,” the executive director told The Mandarin of Major Projects Victoria. “Large, unique, one-off projects that come along every once in a while are pretty hard to just gear up for and gear down for. If you can identify those around within government and then put the expertise in a single place to deliver those, you get a chance to even that out.”

To make sure the State Library or the Shrine of Remembrance don’t have to look around for their own staff to manage the occasional major project, MPV provides that skill base.

But it is operating in an increasingly crowded space. While Major Projects Victoria has been around since 1987, the Victorian government is introducing two new agencies with similar names: Projects Victoria and Infrastructure Victoria. The legislation to create Infrastructure Victoria passed recently, though Projects Victoria “is still in development and further details will be released once it has been finalised”, a government spokesperson said in a statement to The Mandarin.

Some have questioned what the boundaries will be between the three organisations. Public Transport Minister Jacinta Allan explained the relationship thus:

“The difference there is Major Projects is the delivery arm. Projects Victoria is about looking at project delivery across the public service.”

Infrastructure Victoria will focus on strategic planning and advice. The idea is that Infrastructure Victoria will come up with ideas, MPV will deliver them, and Projects Victoria will oversee them.

There are even calls to get rid of it. Victoria’s former auditor-general John Doyle questioned the continued existence of the agency in a report last month. MPV is in charge of a diminishing number of projects and has not made sufficient progress on addressing weaknesses in its governance, Doyle stated, adding that “there are significant questions about the value it provides to Victoria”.

It is safe for now — although the opposition indicated it could support scrapping MPV, the government backs its continued existence.

“We see our role as representing the project and trying to make sure the project has some disciplines …”

MPV operates on a cost recovery model, meaning it spends the money of the client department rather than its own — though the client is sometimes its parent, the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources. “That gives us a separateness in a way, because we’re managing a different set of responsibilities,” he explained.

This separateness “enables a discipline to be imposed back along the lines of fixing a budget, fixing a set of objectives, getting to a point where everything’s agreed”, says Bamford.

“We’ve seen projects where that sort of discipline doesn’t really exist,” he said. “If you’ve got the client also doing the delivery, there’s perhaps more of a tendency to endlessly refine the objectives and to lose sight a little bit of the consequences for that project.

“We see our role as representing the project and trying to make sure the project has some disciplines around time and decision-making and options and time cost and quality.”

Game, set and match

MPV’s role in charge of a range of complex and varied projects means it’s important to make sure the contracting and management styles are designed to suit each project.

“If you’re doing one-off projects, then there’s a limit to how much you can just have a standard, off-the-shelf template,” he said.

One example he gives is stage one of the redevelopment of Melbourne Park. “There was a lot of complexity around that,” he explained. “There was the notion that we wanted to have world-class standard tennis courts built over a carpark on a suspended slab.

“You and I might think that a concrete slab on top of a car park is just a solid thing, but in fact it’s got beams and bits of support and different resonances in different places, and at that level people are going to notice.”

Throw into the mix that during January public access needed to be maintained so cricket fans could cross through the site to reach the Melbourne Cricket Ground at the same time as certain areas needed to be accessible only to Australian Open ticket holders, and you have the makings of “quite a complicated issue”.

Nonetheless, MPV was able to seal off a particular section for the sole use of the contractor for the duration of construction. This is in contrast to the project at Margaret Court Arena, where “we really couldn’t draw a line and say ‘you, the contractor, can have access to this’.

“It was like ‘no, on some days, when there’s a show at Rod Laver Arena, you can’t be in here’,” he explained.

“It is very important for government to have access to retaining those skills to the appropriate level.”

This changed the risk profile and, as a result, the contracting model. “We had a managing contractor kind of contract for that where the price was not fixed so much up front, but was much more an integrated, co-operative, collaborative model based on a warranted maximum price,” he added.

If it is possible to design down to the last detail exactly and it’s known whether there is contamination or other potential risks, “we can give the builder unfettered access to the site, then we could do all the design first and we could go to the market for builders and say ‘what’s your price?’; we would award it to the cheapest and they would have to deliver exactly what we wanted.

“The minute you do that,” said Bamford, “but then say ‘oh yes, but we’ve got an event next Sunday so you can’t have access to the site on Sunday’, or they stick a bucket in the ground and there’s something glowing bright green down there, or you come along and go ‘oh actually the room we said we wanted to be that big should actually be this big’, then you’re completely on the back foot because you’ve agreed on a lump sum and without the competitive process the contractor is then saying: ‘OK, well, you know, you’ve just delayed me for three weeks, so that’s going to be an extra million dollars.”

Keeping people with the contracting and project management skills to be able to deal with these challenges is important.

“If government is going to reliably and successfully deliver projects, it obviously needs to have access to the appropriate skills,” he said.

“I think we have a fairly good model, we have a range of expertise and skills within our organisation. It is very important for government to have access to retaining those skills to the appropriate level.”

Life in the fast lane

Tim Bamford
Tim Bamford

Before moving to Major Projects Bamford spent more than a decade at the Victorian Grand Prix, first as engineering manager, then general manager of operations, before becoming CEO in 2004. He graduated from a degree in mechanical engineering at Leeds University but has been a project manager most of his career, rather than an engineer as such

He thinks the Grand Prix was his most intense learning period. It’s run as a giant project, and there’s no chance of pushing back the date for delays.

But “if you’re going to work that hard and deal with all of those uncertainties and risks, it’s kind of cool that it’s a motor race at the end of the day and there’s glamour and excitement and jets going overhead,” he said.

His career advice for public servants is to embrace whatever comes along.

“I’ve always been someone who has followed the path to the next step, I’ve never been someone who has had a long-term view of where I wanted to be at the end. My advice to people is to take the opportunity of learning from everything that happens.”

And sometimes you learn more from the disasters in your career than the successes. “If you’re not learning, you’re dead,” he said.

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.