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Last edited 22 Dec 2020
Assurance and self-certification
Self-certification relies on the principle of 'trust and confirm' for both client and contractor. It relies on the client putting in place a management system that includes an assurance overview that provides an insight into the correct completion of the works. It also relies on the contractor implementing a system for the provision of evidence at all points throughout the works as part of their management arrangements. This could include a job-centric form of checklist, such as an inspection and test plan, that will be used to record the progress of the works. Once the works are complete, a certificate is signed by both parties to agree that the works have been completed to the desired standard.
Assurance comes in various guises. For some it is confirmation that all has been completed; for others, it provides confirmation that there is a suitable management system in place. For the purposes of this article, both are considered to be true.
Assurance begins with the start of the contract, if not before. At this time, the client will expect the contractor to provide some form of document describing the management arrangements that will be used to control the works and to provide assurance that they have been completed to the standard required by the contract. Normally, this is in the form of a quality plan or project plan. Further advice on writing quality plans can be found in international specification ISO 10005:2018 – 'Quality management – guidelines for quality plans'. There are also other articles on this website that address the format and content of these plans to which reference should be made. What is important is that the arrangements that are proposed are related to the works and the contract, are meaningful and are not just a reprint of the one used for the last job. It helps if they are succinct and are documents that staff want to carry in their back pocket. They must also be agreed by both parties and used.
Central to the assurance that the works will be completed satisfactorily is the inspection and test plan (ITP). This can be called a manufacturing route card (MRC) among other names. There is an excellent description of ITPs on this website. What the ITP does is to define the stages in the works to a fine degree. It states the standard that the works must achieve, together with other instructions. Most importantly, it has witness and hold points that are agreed between the two parties. At each point, a test or inspection takes place. The contractor informs the client that the point has been reached. The client decides whether or not to attend a witness point, whereas, everything stops until the client attends the hold point.
Self-certification relies on a high level of trust between the client and the contractor. The client is passing the responsibility for the standard of the works to the contractor, which is probably where it should rest ultimately and not re-examining them in detail at every point. This reduces the amount of duplication of tests and inspections. Where a collaborative relationship has been formally set in place, a relationship management plan can help. Information of collaborative working and the preparation of relationship management plans can be found in international specification ISO 44001: 2017 'Collaborative business relationship management systems – requirements and framework'. Typically, they follow the life of a relationship from deciding with whom to collaborate, through setting up the relationship through to providing a soft landing when the relationship comes to an end. In reality, this is part of the way everybody ought to be working together.
At a witness point, the contractor is confirming that the work since the last test or inspection has been successfully completed. The client may accept this with or without attending or examining records, although only the contractor will have signed the item off.
At a hold point, the client will attend the test or inspection and will confirm that the records created at the witness points following the last hold point are valid and that the works conform to the appropriate standard(s). Both parties normally sign the hold point off to permit work to continue into the next stage.
Certification is the means whereby the client and the contractor agree that the works have been completed in accordance with the contract. Clearly, the terms and conditions of the contract must be taken into account, with matters, such as correction of latent defects, etc., being recognised. However, they provide a point of agreement that the works are complete.
It is normal to provide certification at significant points during a project, especially if it is large or there is a handover of the works from one party to another. Two examples include a certificate of design compliance when the engineers hand over to the construction contractor and a certificate of construction completion just before testing is to start. This latter certificate provides the assurance that any equipment is safe to switch on.
So, at the end of the works, a certificate is agreed between the two parties. On a large project, this may form one of many such certificates that are built up discipline by discipline or area by area, so that one umbrella certificate is accepted for the whole project. Typically, the permits to operate for HS1 and Crossrail are each supported by several million records, including ITPs for each element of the works.
There is a recognition of trust between the client and the contractor that the certificate and the supporting records are complete, correct and a true representation of the status of the completed works. This lays a responsibility on the contractor to confirm that this is true before presenting to the client through quality checks, audit and surveillance. It also requires the client to undertake such checks and audits that are necessary to uphold the trust between the two parties without causing undue hindrance to the progress of the works.
Clearly, both assurance and self-certification rely on staff who are demonstrated to be competent for the work they are to do. In the UK, the Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) (see https://www.cscs.uk.com/) and other schemes exist to provide assurance that a person is competent to a given standard.
Competence is also required of the management staff who prepare and review plans and records, who attend tests and inspection and, in particular, sign off certificates. It would not help to send someone to inspect earthworks who could not tell one type of soil from another.
Finally, it is vital that staff are only used within their competences. The only caveat to that is the situation where training is being given on the job, closely supervised by a more competent person until they have learned the ropes.
This subject has been mentioned above but deserves a bit more treatment. Audits should be undertaken by all levels internally throughout the supply chain to provide assurance that the processes and procedures are adequate and being used. These audits are carried out by persons not directly connected with the works and who can shed a new light on what is happening. Advice on auditing can be found in international standard ISO BS EN ISO 19011:2018, 'Guidelines for auditing management systems'.
Audit plans should be agreed internally and should be made available to the customer on a project. This will permit the customer to accompany internal auditors and to undertake audits of their own on the supplier. The reader should note the deliberate change of title from client to customer as this exchange should happen at all levels in the supply chain. When planning, it is important to recognise who else may be auditing the same supplier. There is a tale of a now defunct electronics design and manufacturing company that sent three separate audit teams into the same company with not one knowing that the others were there. The supplier was a trusted manufacturer of electronic components.
The main points of the article can be summed up as follows:
- Start as you mean to go on: agree the plans before each piece of work starts and follow them;
- Trust and confirm: use the ITP or MRC as a plan for assurance and stick to it;
- Use the right people: be certain that you have used competent staff throughout, and
- Audit for a reason; don’t audit for the sake of it.
 About this article
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- Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA).
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