Having standardized information about public works projects is vital for efficient decision-making. By using classification and standardization systems we can organize and order information specifically designed for the construction industry. In this article we would like to shine a light on two examples: the Government of Nuevo León State in Mexico and the Government of Paraguay.
In both cases, it was essential to have a reference standard capable of providing automated and accurate analysis of public works data such as technical specifications, materials and cost analysis.
Searching for the ideal classification system
Various reference standards can currently be used to process information. But these may be insufficient or may even operate as a straitjacket when trying to adapt them to the realities and needs of an individual classification system.
The most popular of the standards used by the construction and infrastructure industry is Building Information Modeling (BIM), described as «a set of technologies, processes and policies enabling multiple stakeholders to collaboratively design, construct and operate a facility in virtual space».
As regards specific classification systems through which we can organize and order information and which can be used to identify elements thanks to standardized codification, the most commonly used are:
- Uniformat. This classification system organizes information according to function. It applies only to physical construction entities. It is focused on building specifications and cost analysis. It is not entirely suitable for the design stage
- Masterformat. This classification system was developed by the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) and is used mainly in the United States and Canada. It was created before the introduction of BIM. It is used to support the creation of contractual documentation for defining technical specifications and other considerations, for example activities to be included within projects.
- Omniclass. This US-based system, also developed by the CSI, is designed to cover the entire lifecycle of a facility. It is probably the most comprehensive codification system in existence but it can cause complications because the tables do not match exactly with BIM design models.
For describing and publishing data on the procurement process for public works projects, the international transparency standards OCDS and OC4IDS are also available. The OCDS standard describes how to publish data and documents at all stages of the contracting process, and has been adopted by various countries around the world, including Paraguay. The OC4IDS standard combines contract-level disclosure using OCDS with project-level disclosure at each stage of an infrastructure project.
The solution to these various alternatives is often to adapt the standards to each individual situation or to create new classification systems that meet local needs. Let’s look at the solutions that Nuevo León and Paraguay came up with.
The Infrastructure Secretariat is the agency responsible for the design and construction of public works pertaining to Nuevo León State in northern Mexico. The public works procurement projects that are undertaken by the Secretariat meet a variety of needs, such as the construction or improvement of public spaces (including parks, hospitals and museums). These works are monitored using the Secretariat’s own systems but they are completely independent from the works entrusted to and carried out by other agencies.
The Secretariat’s strategy of standardizing public works projects arose from the need to design and implement a cost classification system that could be used as a decision-making tool in planning, tendering and administrative control procedures. Given that Nuevo León State and the Mexican Federal Government do not currently have a standard for classifying items or concepts, they needed their own classification system in order to carry out the respective analyses and to monitor purchases and tenders.
Each contract item represents what is known in the world of architecture and civil engineering as a «Concept of Work», i.e. a description of a specific construction work or service that is awarded to a contractor under a contract, including quantity and unit price.
In view of the above, Nuevo León State concluded that it was necessary to adapt the international standards to the local construction situation. So the team in charge of Nuevo León’s Infrastructure Secretariat created a new common classification system that meets internal requirements and which can interface with other public entities so that the State can follow a standardized procedure with a single classification system. It is currently being rolled out to other areas carrying out infrastructure projects.
In making the decision about how to improve its classification system, the Infrastructure Secretariat identified the main challenges that needed to be addressed:
- Under the original classification system, elements were not organized according to a standard, as they previously had an internal classification system based on production practices whereby a code was assigned by the Projects Department. The process was less controlled, with a limited number of principles governing the assignment of codes.
- There were no standardized units of measurement, which meant that concepts were often analyzed incorrectly.
- Lack of standardization of concepts (items) Unique codes/keys.
- Lack of standardization of inputs (materials, labor, tools and equipment) Unique codes/keys.
- No defined standard for assigning codes in the catalogs of concepts (items).
- Lack of staff training.
- Poor communication between processes; there were problems in understanding the type of task for a given work and in being able to analyze progress of works.
- In the absence of a standard, there were problems with estimates.
Having detected these issues, the Secretariat decided to put information about public works tenders being carried out within the agency into a classification system so as to order and group the internal information in the form of a universal catalog (items).
This classification of items or concepts remains in place as new projects are generated. There is also a register of existing concepts so as to ensure that the universal catalog only contains details about concepts generated for the first time. Once a new concept is entered onto the database, it can be assigned a special code ensuring that it will be classified according to hierarchical order.
- Specialty (01) (Civil works)
- Heading (001) (Preliminary and provisional works)
- Subheading (0001) (Provisional electrical service)
- Concept (00001)
This structure ensures that any concepts that are necessary for future public works can be included, facilitating the work of those preparing the catalogs of concepts.
The proposed classification of concepts was necessary in order to have a clearer reference so as to ensure that the classification system can be understood correctly. Being able to assign a unique classification code meant that it was easier to obtain precise analysis and order data, which was not available originally and which led to difficulties such as duplication errors. Moreover, in order to encourage transparency and allow for more detailed data analysis, it was necessary to publish information in line with the OCDS and OC4IDS standards.
Bringing this classification of concepts into line with a standard makes the work of the Secretariat substantially easier because it triggers the creation of a catalog of concepts which, in turn, helps the system to generate the budget for each work.
With the new classification of items, a flexible classification system has been created based on norms arising from international standards. It has also led to a more controlled and verified process. The international transparency standards OCDS and OC4IDS have been taken into account in this process. Examples of works in which the new classification system can already be seen include the renovation of the Pablillos Regional Sports Center, Galeana Hospital and the construction of the Nuevo León Gastronomic Plaza.
One of the next steps for Nuevo León’s Infrastructure Secretariat is to incorporate BIM methodology and ensure that the classification of concepts can be transmitted in a digital model, which will help reduce time in analyzing volumes, generating concepts (items) which have previously been analyzed and correctly classified, and comparing the total cost of the work.
For electronic cataloging, Paraguay uses the Spanish version of the United Nations Standard Products and Services Code (UNSPSC). To the original four-level classification («Segment», «Family», «Class», «Commodity»), Paraguay has added a new level 5, «Description». The result can be found in the tool called «Catalog Explorer».
The objective of standardizing the catalog codes of road items is to unify and identify the nomenclature and unit of measurement and to establish a correlation with the DNCP catalog code. In doing so, it is possible to compile a template of expense items for road works, whether they are for new constructions, highway maintenance or part of the main road network or local road network. On a practical level, the following challenges were identified:
- DNCP level 5 codes are very generic for the needs of the Ministry of Public Works and are not detailed enough to describe road works
- Items on the Information System for Electronic Certification of Works (SICOE) do not match items following the DNCP classification.
- The same item description appears in different places in the DNCP catalog.
- There are different forms and different units for the same type of work.
- The highway manual does not include all items used in quotations.
- The unit of measurement does not readily lend itself to price comparison.
There are two proposals for implementing the model for categorizing work items. They are based on a dictionary developed as a result of consultancy work carried out by the Center for Sustainable Development, in collaboration with the Inter-American Development Bank.
One of the proposals is to create level 5 catalog codes for all highway items available in the highway manual and those items that are identified on the basis of data uploaded to the Information System for Electronic Certification of Works (SICOE), as well as the datasets obtained from calls for tenders. This would consider the context and functionalities of the information management systems operated by the National Directorate of Public Procurement (DNCP) and the SICOE, which is part of the Ministry of Public Works and Communications (MOPC). Because generic templates for level 5 items (e.g. «sewer pipe») cannot yet be used in these systems, additional characteristics can be added with value options.
Another alternative, which is more consistent with current needs, is to generate level 5 catalog codes with additional characteristics of different types and values. This would require upgrades to the DNCP’s and MOPC’s systems but standardization would make it easier to carry out statistical analyses of specific components including at macro level. It would also help to ensure that each item has data for the purposes of price comparison and creation of reference prices. Among other benefits, contractors could also find this useful when it comes to preparing their quotes, demonstrating their experience in other RFQs and preparing certifications.
The Paraguayan experience also takes into account the international transparency standards OCDS and OC4IDS.
Paraguay will look to implement the standardization of the road works catalog and to ensure that all projects put out to tender – those prepared by the MOPC or by external consultants – use the new dictionary developed for producing bills of quantities and technical specifications.
The concept classification system helps to standardize information and makes the information concerned a better quality product with improved efficiency because the analyses that can be performed with the system are more automated and a better workflow can be achieved.
Taking both experiences into account, our opinion is that there is a need to standardize concepts as part of a universal catalog of items. The Infrastructure Secretariat in Nuevo León has already successfully incorporated this tool into certain works and is extending it to other agencies that carry out infrastructure projects. Paraguay, in contrast, has not yet been able to implement this classification.
It is always necessary to raise awareness within the sectors concerned, principally in technical areas, about the importance of standardization for handling information, generating statistics and ensuring efficiency and transparency.
Data modeling and interoperability need to be taken into account in analyzing the design of works and the design of IT systems to support or disseminate information, in order to avoid duplication of efforts in data uploading and data inconsistency.