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Defence against the tyranny of distance

Securing project success in rural and remote Australia

15 January 2020
Michael Owens

Australia

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While cities are the centre of orbit for most of Australia’s development activity, a significant proportion of the more than $200 billion committed for Defence initiatives in the next decade will be spent in regional and remote parts of the country.

Ask any project manager and they are sure to have a few stories about the challenges of delivery in urban settings–from traffic management to community engagement and the high-stakes choreography of crane lifts completed within inches of neighbouring buildings.

Ask a project manager who specialises in Defence initiatives the same question and they’ll have just as many tales to tell about the complexity of work in the isolated zones reserved for weapons ranges, training areas and specialist capability projects.

Like any military mission, good preparation is critical to the success of Defence projects delivered outside the city. In fact, I believe that smart planning can turn regional and remote challenges to a Defence project’s advantage.

With more than $7 billion of Australian Defence projects currently under management at RPS, here are some of the key principles that our program managers apply to rural and remote initiatives to ensure project success and avoid cost blow-out.

Think local, manage global

Engaging the right expertise is a key consideration for any project, but in regional areas, the costs–both direct and indirect–of getting the right people on the ground can add up quickly.

Mobilising local community contractors can be a cost-efficient strategy that’s well-aligned with Defence’s objective to facilitate broader economic benefit via local employment opportunities.

While traditional procurement methods such as going to market in an open tender process might need to be modified to facilitate the engagement of local trades, supporting workers to upskill or gain necessary clearances may reap significant cost savings over the project lifecycle.

Of course, there will always be a need to import talent–especially for work on very remote sites. This is where planning pays dividends. Housing fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) workers can represent a big risk to the bottom line. If not managed well from the outset, accommodation can quickly become a project’s ‘compound interest’–an exponential budget line item with no reverse gear or brake pedal.

Just like in the city, supply and demand reigns supreme in the bush. And just as we saw the cost of housing skyrocket in remote outback communities during the resources boom, an influx of workers for Defence projects can have a huge impact on the cost and availability of hotels and rental accommodation.

Evaluating the budget impacts of different workforce accommodation options, negotiating with local suppliers and assessing whether a dedicated construction camp is more cost-efficient are a must.

“Whether the innovation is large or small, thinking creatively about the challenges of isolation can reap real rewards.”

Michael Owens

Chief Executive Officer

There's opportunity in scarcity

When working at remote locations such as the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) Woomera or Delamere Weapons Ranges, isolation makes construction camps a natural choice. But camp siting, set up and long-term operation can help or hinder project success.

Investigating optimal positioning and provisioning of a site across the maximum extent of a project’s lifecycle as early as possible in the planning phase is a vital consideration for cost and efficiency along with workers’ health and wellbeing.

This is especially important at Tindal in the Northern Territory, where there is insufficient housing in town to accommodate a large workforce. Looking at this from the very beginning is critical to informing budgets for work there, especially when you consider that there is more than one project underway.

Depending on the remoteness of the location, projects can see risk provisions increase by up to 20 per cent. Project managers must ask the question - how can synergies between projects be harnessed to reduce the overall cost to Defence?

There are plenty of other important questions to ask, too.

How will the site be powered? How is waste managed? Is there a potable supply of water available or will drinking water need to be carted to site? How many times will the camp need to be relocated over the course of a program?

With the downturn in mining, second-hand construction camps are often readily available. Recently in Darwin, we were able to source existing accommodation camps to house the next rotation of US Marines. It goes to show that understanding what’s happening across industry more broadly can yield significant project savings.

Asking these kinds of questions early can also reveal opportunities for innovation.

For example, how could camp waste become a construction resource? How might a renewable ‘precinct energy’ approach reduce the budget impacts of electricity and need to transport diesel to remote sites? Could this allow Defence to create high-yield infrastructure to power a base post-construction, could the asset be handed over to an electricity retailer or used to sustainably power remote Indigenous communities?

Whether the innovation is large or small, thinking creatively about the challenges of isolation can reap real rewards.

Engagement as an insurance policy

While we tend to think of Defence projects as an exclusive and closed-loop enterprise, an open dialogue with the community is a critical success factor.

Long before approvals are secured and construction work begins, extensive processes of consultation, communication and conversation must occur with stakeholders at all levels. There’s no faster road to project derailment than a community that’s not behind you.     

Even though we generally see more support for defence initiatives in regional areas due to the benefits they can bring to local businesses and economies, it’s never too early start talking to the local chamber of commerce, Aboriginal Land Council, farming cooperative and other interest groups to understand what the community values and to seek buy-in from locals

From Mornington Peninsula, to Katherine and the remotest areas of North Queensland and South Australia, regional and remote communities provide the space, resources and support that our Defence agencies need to keep our region secure. With smart planning and a little creativity, those of us tasked with project delivery can help Defence estate and capability initiative owners secure project success right across our wide brown land.    

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