Leader: Is BIM the solution to our corruption mess?

It’s easy to think that the results of last month’s CIOB survey on corruption and fraud aren’t particularly relevant to the professional end of the industry, characterised by thorough project governance and accounting systems. In addition, fraud is such a catch-all term, that inevitably it nets in practices that most of us view as relatively benign.

After all, when is “invoice padding” a bid to make an illegal profit, and when is it a negotiating tactic, lack of skill in estimating, or a reminder of the law of caveat emptor? When is a change order a ruse to defraud the main contractor, and when is it a legitimate response to changed circumstances?

And, if we’re told that fraud and collusion begin at home – or in the back office with the accounts payable department – then that means harbouring doubts about the probity of colleagues or the permeability of internal systems. Neither sits comfortably with most people.

But Grant Thornton’s forensic accountants speak from the experience of going through clients’ books when they assert that fraud is frighteningly common. They cite a case when a client paid for the same wall to be painted seven times, and the difficulties the firm had in verifying the construction costs of the Millennium Dome, the epitome of a publicly funded project that one would assume had super-strength compliance procedures.

Together with the results of the CIOB’s own research, a picture is emerging of an industry so focused on delivering highly complex projects, with multiple interfaces and ever-moving targets, that it’s overlooked the fact that not everyone has evolved the same sophistication it has.

So does BIM have a role in squeezing out the fraudulent invoices, the double billing, the over-ordering? The CIOB believes it could become a conduit for new thinking on financial transparency.

It might, but only if it’s used intelligently, by people who are asking the right questions. Will it give everyone on the project transparency on metrics such as square metre costs on each floor, or from one project to the next project? Will it usher in new forms of digital monitoring of site processes – like a time lapse camera to check just how many coats of paint that wall gets?

BIM, of course, is the repository of many of the industry’s hopes for the future, and sometimes it seems we expect too much of it: after all, as highlighted elsewhere in this issue, the real BIM benefits come from collaboration, not digital models.

But if we don’t set up BIM systems with an awareness of fraud and corruption in mind, then it’s never going to identify problems – or save contractors and clients the billions of revenues both the CIOB and Grant Thornton agree are going astray. 

Elaine Knutt, editor

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