So Why the Secrecy?

27 Jul 2017

The Builders’ Conference CEO Neil Edwards bemoans the UK construction industry’s inability to share information and its failure to grasp the true purpose of the Data Protection Act.

We live in an age where, with a few swipes of a finger on a tablet or the movement of computer mouse, you can find Tom Cruise’s inside leg measurement; the nearest pizza delivery service; the likely cause of your latest medical issues; the salary of your boss; and – with a little perseverance - the dictionary meaning of the word “indefatigable”.

We are also lucky enough to be alive during the dawning of the BIM age, in which construction projects are tracked, monitored and recorded from cradle to grave with an unprecedented degree of thoroughness and transparency.

And yet there are still parts of the UK construction sector for which transparency is anathema and that represent a slow-traffic-only bypass running in parallel to the information superhighway.

Back in the Day

It was not that long ago that the winning of a new contract meant visiting the company’s in-house library to trawl through a dog-eared edition of the Yellow Pages to draw up a list of more specialist contractors and sub-contractors in the local vicinity of the new contract award.   There would then follow a protracted telephone blitz ringing around those local firms to ascertain their availability to price the works let alone actually do the works.   The advent of the Internet really could not come soon enough.

But while a Google search will quickly direct you to a plastering company in Plaistow and a landfill in Llandudno, the same cannot always be said about the searches available from industry bodies and trade associations.

Indeed, it often seems that the online directories of these organisation were created to actually put further levels of searching for potential buyers with some company information being incorrect as procedurally it is collected on renewal of membership.

And instead of transparency, such organisations seem to prefer a system of secrecy and subterfuge, as if their very lives depend upon keeping the contact details of their members under lock and key.

Valuable Asset

And yet, this attitude flies in the face of the very reason businesses join such associations in the first place.   Member businesses jump through hoops, are vetted and audited to within an inch of their life and pay a fee just to ensure that they can put their chosen association or federation’s logo on their letterheads and websites as a badge of honour.   Little do they know that those organisations treat their contact details like a high school student sitting their GCSEs, writing with one arm wrapped around the exam paper to ensure neighbouring students cannot copy their answers

This protect-at-all-costs attitude to information speaks of an organisation that has failed to move with the digital era and which has only a scant grasp of Data Protection legislation.

For years, trade associations’ members’ lists were considered their most valuable asset.   Some even charged good money for the sale of these lists while others insisted that potential suppliers became associate members in order to gain access to this veritable treasure trove of data.

In the digital Internet age, however, all has changed.   Member lists displayed online can be viewed and utilised by anyone with time, patience and the ability to cut and paste all the live-long-day.  

That information is in the public domain – precisely as members want it to be – and is free to use.   And information that is in the public domain is pretty much immune from the Data Protection Act (although most associations appear blissfully and deliberately unaware of this fact).

Act of Treason

Sadly, this failure to grasp the true meaning of information transparency among trade bodies is indicative of the wider industry.

To compile the BCLive league table, our team of researchers spend day after day on the telephone to clients, contractors and sub-contractors to ascertain which companies have won work.   Most are all too willing to shout their latest contract award success from the as-yet-unbuilt rooftops.   Others, however, treat such information like they just signed the Official Secrets Act.   Even when our researchers explain that the contract award has already been announced by their own press office, they act as though any confirmation of such sensitive information is an act of treason and punishable by death.   Do they not realise that a quick look at Google Street View or a drive by the site will quickly reveal the very information they’re trying so desperately to conceal?

The fact is that the construction industry has been slow to embrace technology and the information age.  For every company that has leapt aboard the BIM bandwagon, there a hundred that treat the very notion of contractual transparency as both alien and abhorrent.

All of which begs a question:  While some companies, associations and federations are only too happy to share their information, exactly what is it that others are trying to hide?