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  • Writer's pictureKelly Lofberg

WHAT IS EFFECTIVE ENGAGEMENT?

Improving Community Engagement: The Key to Successful Infrastructure Projects.


In this blog post, we will explore the importance of effective community consultation in infrastructure projects and why it should be considered as a strategic tool as part of any robust risk management approach and give you our ten tips to improve #engagement.

 

Effective community #consultation is an essential aspect of any infrastructure project, particularly when there are complex and competing needs. While often thought about at the delivery phase of a project, that is, to meet the government requirements of an environmental impact statement, or through construction because it is a condition of the approval to build, consultation is far more effective when considered as a strategic tool at the concept development phase as part of any robust risk management approach.

This is because these projects have the potential to generate significant impacts on the surrounding community, including disruption to daily life, changes in environmental quality and public health, impact to land and sometimes this includes acquisitions or compensation, and often result in significant social and economic costs. If consultation is conducted at very restricted and defined intervals (i.e. EIS or construction), it is extremely difficult to make changes to the project that reduce impacts on or enhance benefits to stakeholders. You only need to look at any major infrastructure project where consultation occurred through the approval phase and notifications happened through construction, to identify significant reputational and financial risk and delays to project due to stakeholder backlash, protests, negative media attention and political scrutiny.


Therefore, when undertaking such projects, often touted as projects for the greater good, it is imperative that decision makers make two significant changes to the way they approach stakeholder engagement and consultation.

The power of effective engagement can't be overstated
  1. Empower stakeholder engagement professionals and give them a seat at the strategy table. Invest in engagement specialists to build project leaders, giving them not only a voice in developing projects but also as decision-makers. After all they protect an organisation’s reputation, deal with challenging media and political inquiries, and face impacted stakeholders.

  2. Engage with stakeholders from the concept phase. Give stakeholders the opportunity to be part of the project early, and not only to express their opinions, concerns, or feedback but to help shape the project. This does not mean every stakeholder needs to be involved, however, a executing a well-formed strategy will help to identify ways to avoid potential conflicts, reduce potential impacts while creating positive opportunities that benefit the community.

What can go wrong if engagement is not managed well.

What happens when engagement goes wrong

1. Miscommunication: If the message is not properly conveyed, it can lead to misunderstandings and mistrust between the project team and the community.


2. Lack of timely information:Failure to provide information on project details, progress, impacts, and benefits can spark rumours, false rumours, and negative publicity.


​3. Opposition from stakeholders:Some stakeholders can hold strong opinions against the project, which may hamper its implementation. Opponents can mount resistance campaigns, legal challenges or public protests, stalling or disrupting the project. And when those opponents have a profile, like world champ surfer, Mick Fanning, things quickly escalate, derailing the project (see ABC News).


​4. Discrimination and exclusion: It is possible that certain segments of the community may feel excluded, improperly represented, or uninvolved in the decision-making process.


5. Unclear roles and responsibilities: The roles of various partners or participants in the engagement process, including representatives from government or private organisations, community leaders, or citizen groups, might be ambiguous, creating uncertainty and confusion.


6. Budgetary constraints: Projects may require significant financial resources to engage with the community, and such expenditures may not always be feasible. This means projects need to be more creative and give sufficient time to engage.


7. Limited access to technology:Some community members might be technologically disadvantaged, making it difficult for them to participate in virtual engagement activities.


8. Time constraints: Engaging the community takes time, and if the project timelines are too tight, it can reduce the opportunity for meaningful engagement.


10 tips to improve engagement.


Tips to improve your engagement

1. Start Early: Begin community engagement as early as possible during the concept planning and design phase of your project. This means rethinking when consultation is considered. Often the engagement starts when the project approvals are underway. However, communication and engagement are far more effective when used as a leading strategic input into the concept testing prior to initiating the project.

2. Maintain Two-way Communication: Establish a two-way communication with the community, where you listen to their concerns and feedback and respond to their questions and comments promptly.


3. Use Multiple Platforms: Use a mix of traditional and digital platforms to engage with the community such as public meetings, community presentations, digital engagement platforms, events, surveys, social media, and email notifications.​


4. Develop a Comprehensive Communication and Engagement Plan: Develop a plan that outlines the objectives, target audience, messaging, and outreach strategies for your community engagement activities.


5. Provide Clear Information: Provide clear and concise information about the project, including its benefits, costs, and potential impacts on the community.


6. Foster Trust: Foster trust by building relationships with key stakeholders in the community and demonstrating transparency and accountability throughout the project.


7. Empower the Community: Empower the community to participate in the decision-making process by providing them with opportunities to give feedback and be part of the solution.


8. Seek Expert Advice: Seek expert advice from community engagement specialists who have experience working on similar projects.


9. Follow through: Follow through on promises made during the engagement process and keep the community informed about any updates or changes to the project.

10. Evaluate and Learn: Evaluate the effectiveness of your community engagement activities and learn from your successes and failures to continually improve your approach in future projects.


Author


Kelly Lofberg is an engagement and communications professional, who specialises in complex and issues rich environments. Bringing innovative ways to solve problems is her jam. Sometimes Kel bring LEGO® too.


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