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Online auctions: architectural values come under the hammer

Economy; efficiency; transparency: these are the benefits of the reverse electronic auctions currently being championed by the Office of Government Commerce (OGC).The economic argument is compelling.The OGC reports that the use of such auctions in the public sector produces average savings of 25 per cent compared with traditional tender processes, but is keen to reiterate its stated belief that architectural procurement should be based on value rather than cost.

The CABE/OGC report, Improving Standards of Design in the Procurement of Public Buildings, recommends that procurement decisions pay due consideration to 'fitness for purpose, build quality, sustainability, adaptability, safety, efficiency, appreciation of context and an aesthetic impact that contributes to civic life'.Online tenders would thus have to be complex enough for each of these factors to be assessed.

They would have to outline a comprehensive design strategy so that any assessment of 'best value'could take into account all aesthetic and practical aspects of the proposal.The efficiency of the auction process rests on the assumption that bids are both simple and directly comparable. It is rather less effective when the process makes enormous demands, both on competing bidders and the assessment panel.

The report also emphasises the importance of dialogue between client and design team, and of 'ensuring full stakeholder and end-user involvement in the design process'.Again, the very essence of the auction process is undermined. If bids are to be assessed on a relatively sophisticated design proposal and stakeholders are to be involved from the earliest stages, there must surely be a degree of consultation before proposals reach the bidding stage.Which makes a mockery of the notion that, in preserving a degree of distance between different parties, auctions favour anonymity and transparency, and therefore 'fairness', over the supposedly corrupting influence of personal relations. It appears, then, that both efficiency and transparency would inevitably be compromised.Which leaves us with economy.But would important government decisions ever be influenced by anything quite so crass?

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