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Time To Look at Our Own Bureaucracies

It is time the elephant in the room took a stroll.


April 20, 2011
By Rob Bradford

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There are too many associations serving contractors and suppliers in Ontario.

What follows will not please some of my colleagues who manage industry associations, but it is time the elephant in the room took a stroll.

There are too many associations serving contractors and suppliers in Ontario.  The plethora of local mixed, trade, general contractor and special interest associations represent a huge bureaucracy which may serve their members to some extent in their specific context but which viewed in the macro sense support duplication of effort, inefficient use of precious resources and fragmentation of the construction industry’s voice.

We in the association management business are quick to smugly deride government for its bureaucratic ways and the inefficiencies, waste and confusion that is born of it.  It is time perhaps for a look in the mirror because the industry has built a disjointed bureaucracy itself, rife with all the pitfalls we like to think are the domain of big government.  Is it any wonder that government is slow to action on some construction industry issues when their desks are full of association letterhead all claiming to be the voice of construction but seldom delivering a similar message?  How is government to figure out who speaks for the industry when we appear unable to figure it out ourselves?

One need look no further than the civil construction sector in Ontario for illustration of the problem.  While other provinces, Alberta for instance, have a single provincial heavy civil construction association, in Ontario we have a road builders association, a sewer and watermain association, local heavy construction associations, utilities contractors associations and many associations representing major products and materials sectors such as hot mix asphalt, ready mixed concrete, pipe and many more.  Each association has a staff and significant physical overhead and each vies for a constantly declining number of volunteers to do their work. 

In our own association, the Ontario Road Builders’ Association, we have members that belong to up to a dozen different associations.  They shouldn’t have to.  In each case there are significant membership fees to be paid thus spreading available financial resources thinly across a large base of organizations.   Too often the cost of belonging is making contractors choose between one organization or another. 

Surely there are financial savings and human resources benefits to be realized through some nature of rationalization of our associations, in particular whole scale mergers that would consolidate resources and reduce duplication of services.  We all have information websites and education programs and health and safety activities and many other services that we deliver in isolation with no thought to the possibility that another association is probably delivering the same things to its membership. 

Apart from financial and operational efficiency, rationalization of our own bureaucracies would also speak to a more unified and better coordinated voice for the industry.  The construction industry needs to develop its broader opinions internally rather than shipping them off to government individually and expecting civil servants to figure out what exactly the industry wants.

So how did we get ourselves top heavy in bureaucracy?  Association managers and staff have to shoulder some of the blame for protectionist attitudes.  Who wants to willingly advocate for change that might affect their jobs or career paths?  Who will readily accept rationalization of the industry’s associations when self interest dictates that the bigger you make the operation the more job security you create?

Similarly with our elected Boards of Directors, the fear of losing something detracts from taking a progressive look at what might better serve their members and the broader industry.  Losing what is never clearly defined, but their association’s ‘identity’ is often cited as something to be protected at all costs.  Some fear their effectiveness might suffer, others worry that their specific interests might get lost in the shuffle but rationalization and redefinition of the construction industry bureaucracy would more likely deliver the opposite.

Change must start with our Boards of Directors, as it won’t begin with our association managers.  Our presidents and chairs need to talk to each other with the objective of finding ways to move forward with fewer, more effective associations that can service the industry more efficiently and make better use of finite resources.