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Developing Effective Community Engagement Programs

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New developments can cause community angst. It is especially true whenever infrastructure and the acquisition of homes are involved. 

NSW alone is currently undergoing monumental changes. Among them, the M9 orbital, WestConnex, Badgery’s Creek Aerotropolis, and the Bells Line of Road and Castlereagh Corridor, as well a many new housing developments going up in the outlying areas of Sydney, transforming the very fabric of the suburbs.

Each night the news alternates between showing progress on these developments and running stories of distressed communities who feel they have not had an adequate consultation or believe their protests haven’t been heard. 

While typically constituting less than 1 percent of a major project’s budget, community engagement is an undervalued yet vital component of any development or infrastructure project. Getting it right can mean the difference between on-time and on-budget, or massive cost blow-outs and delays.

In November 2017, The University of Melbourne, The Melbourne School of Government and The Engagement People released a Research Priorities Summary entitled Next Generation Engagement — Informing Community Engagement for Australia’s Infrastructure Sector. It sought to identify the challenges of community engagement and identify the future best practice for community engagement in infrastructure projects.

Jobsite spoke exclusively to Kylie Cochrane, International Chair of IAP2 — the Professional Association for Engagement Professionals, and Managing Principal, Communication and Stakeholder Engagement for Aurecon, to understand the value of community engagement and any best practice tips.

“There's no one size fits all approach to community engagement. It depends on the project, the industry, and how much the project will impact the communities surrounding it."

“There is no one size fits all approach to community engagement,” Kylie explains. “It depends on the project, the industry, and how much the project will impact the communities surrounding it.

“Through planning legislation, which differs according to geographic location and jurisdiction, there is a minimum amount of consultation required on a project. Generally, the more people are impacted, the more engagement is required.”

The University of Melbourne report also notes the most influential factors affecting project delivery are stakeholder and community pressure. Kylie believes that the politicising of projects has recently had an impact on the level and quality of engagement.

“With the 24-hour news cycle, politicians are under pressure to make announcements quickly. It can impact the quality of engagement or even occur before any proper consultation has taken place,” says Kylie. 

This view is backed up by the Melbourne University report. It has found politicisation a significant impediment to community consultation that can detract from community engagement practitioners' ability to focus on the project holistically. The report notes: “Projects are perceived as heavily politicised, and planning approval processes are often seen by stakeholders as a rubber stamp, impacting the ability to deliver best practise engagement.”

Kylie believes society has changed over the last ten years, and so the nature of community consultation also changes. According to Kylie’s Social Triangle theory, a decade ago, the makeup of every community, first world, third world and/or tribal, could be represented by a hypothetical triangle of politics in one corner, religion in another, and community on the third point. Now, however, we can observe a significant distrust of politics. People have moved away from religious institutions. This leaves the community as the only cornerstone of society. 

People now hold community — defined in terms of people (friends and family) and place (my country, my town, my street) as sacred. And any potential change is seen as a personal threat to an individual’s way of life. Therefore, the default reaction to any infrastructure will be outrage.    

This evolution makes community engagement even more crucial than ever before, says Kylie: 

“Community engagement is no longer something we choose to do as a ‘nice to have.’ Now the community expects it. We have no choice, and we must get it right.”

“Community engagement is no longer something we choose to do as a ‘nice to have.’ Now the community expects it. We have no choice, and we must get it right.”

Different Engagement Levels

There are different levels of engagement required throughout a project explains Kylie: “In the planning stage, it requires more collaboration with the community. After all, this is the point when they may be able to influence change; the construction stage is more about general information, such as road closures or impacts.” 

Kylie offers five essential tips that should be consolidated into all community engagement programs:

  1.  DO YOUR RESEARCH – Find out who your affected community is. What do they value? Where do they live, work, and play? How do they seek and source their information? This information will help you to identify the best way to communicate with people when it comes to community consultation. They can be carried out via newspaper, social media, one-on-ones, community meetings, and any mixture of those mediums. 
  2. ENGAGE EARLY – When the community is surprised by an announcement, people will be furious. It is far better to bring them on the journey. Discuss the problem first, before offering any solutions. Once they acknowledge the problem, you can present options and ask them to suggest solutions.
  3. ACKNOWLEDGE COMMUNITY EXPERTISE – Nine times out of ten, community feedback will be beneficial, because they know more about their local area than you do.
  4. INCORPORATE COMMUNITY FEEDBACK – When you do get valuable and useful feedback from the community, feedback that will improve a project,  use it. These people live and work in the area and will be potentially using the infrastructure or development you are creating. 
  5. COMMUNICATE OUTCOMES – It is almost pointless to consult the community and not tell them the outcomes. You should inform them, especially if you have taken on board their comments and modified your project to accommodate their concerns. This also helps to build trust and credibility and will make it easier to approach them in future if required, as you already have a relationship to fall back on.

To Learn more about community consultation, visit The International Association for Public Participation

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