2023 – Assessing the Effectiveness of Technical Review Process for Dam Projects

Chris Nielsen, Rob Fowden, Gary Hargraves, Irena Buckman

Technical review has been identified as a critical role for dam projects so that technical matters are appropriately addressed, evaluated and justified objectively and without bias. Its importance is emphasised through regulatory obligations to include technical review in dam projects and safety reviews in Queensland.
Technical reviewers need to be technically smart and preferably recognised as experts in their field. But is that all? Are there other skills that also play a role and, if so, how much of a role?

Regulatory oversight of technical review commenced in Queensland in 2020. The regulator has observed many technical review processes since then. This, and a survey of a cohort of experienced technical reviewers, provides an informed position to consider the effectiveness of technical review, what aspects drive both negative and positive outcomes, and whether adjustments to the regulatory requirements should be made.

Behaviours, avoidance of biases and other “soft” skills are important components of technical review, not just technical skills. These behaviours, which are relatively unique to technical review, are the controls by which the reviewers’ actions can best influence the dam owner and project team and deliver the best outcome for a project. It is important that cognitive bias is recognised as a risk and considered when conducting a technical review.

Technical review is more likely to be successful when dam owner and project team are technically competent and when all parties are working together well. When a technical review is struggling it may not be the reviewers themselves at fault, rather it may be the capabilities of the dam owner or the project team.
Opportunities to improve published regulatory guidance have been identified. The processes currently described will remain but with further emphasis on the need to consider cognitive bias, provide a template terms of reference to better clarify expectations on process and communications, recommend mechanisms to correct dam owner technical capacity and further clarify what is considered to be adequate technical review. It will also encourage dam owners to broaden observer roles in technical review to educate junior engineers and encourage growth and succession.

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