Are you embracing these modern engagement trends in your infrastructure projects?

Major infrastructure projects have a big impact on communities. Engaging with those communities is critical to the success of those projects, but government officials and infrastructure providers often find this a fraught process.

If you’re a project managers in council or central government organisation, this article will help you learn about:

  • The public’s increased expectations for involvement in infrastructure projects

  • The value of engaging for the duration of the project, not just once at the outset

  • The scope for online engagement.

(This is a rewrite of an article published in the December issue of the Institute of Public Administration’s Public Sector Journal.)

The accelerating expectations for community engagement

The proposed Tahunanui cycleway was rejected by the very community that proposed it. So what happened? Image from Alden Williams via  Stuff .

The proposed Tahunanui cycleway was rejected by the very community that proposed it. So what happened? Image from Alden Williams via Stuff.

Engaging with the community on infrastructure projects is a tricky business.

And it’s getting more tricky because the goalposts of community expectations continue to move. What used to be acceptable to communities is no longer guaranteed to be good enough. This rapid change in expectations is occurring even within the timespan of individual projects.

This change was articulated to me in 2017 when a disgruntled citizen said:

They think they are consulting with us. It’s not consultation; it’s ‘insultation’.

You can see this change in a recent infrastructure project that seemed to do everything right. In June 2017, Nelson City Council’s Infrastructure Committee considered a proposal for a cycleway in Tahunanui. The proposal was brought after years of work, which included extensive community consultation.

To the surprise of the council members and the staff, the community rejected the well-consulted and recommended route. Even though the community had proposed that route a few years ago! Tahunanui neighbourhood residents filled the public gallery to reinforce their opposition.

The council had followed good consultation practice and taken extensive advice.

What was the community’s issue? The consultation happened several years earlier, during the project preparation phase. From their perspective, this gap was a lifetime.

Nelson City’s Infrastructure Committee concluded:

“After hearing from the community in the public forum and much discussion around the table, we have decided not to pursue the previous recommended route at this time.”

And the project was referred back for a redesign of the engagement process.

Is your engagement a one-time offer?

There is a mutual sense of exasperation by both communities and the organisations managing infrastructure projects.

But this is not a uniquely New Zealand challenge. It’s an international one. An insightful report on this was provided by the OECD Framework for Governance of Infrastructure in 2016, which concluded:

Infrastructure impacts communities – without well managed consultation, good projects may falter. Consultations in democratic countries should take into account the role of elected representatives and executives to take action on behalf of the public good in a timely fashion.

Across the OECD, transport projects are driving most infrastructure planning. And in most projects, consultation is done in the early stages and then tails off – as the diagram below shows.

Most OECD countries consult during the early stages of infrastructure projects. The opportunities for public participation often reduce as the project moves on.

Most OECD countries consult during the early stages of infrastructure projects. The opportunities for public participation often reduce as the project moves on.

The report concludes that consultation processes need to be proportionate to the size of the project. Project managers must consider the overall public interest and the views of the relevant stakeholders. The process should be “broad-based, inspire dialogue and draw on public access to information and users’ needs”.

Surely there would be unanimous agreement to these principles in New Zealand? Yet there remains a growing mismatch between public expectation of engagement and the practice by infrastructure providers.

The challenges for infrastructure project managers

Some of our team attended the inaugural National Community Engagement for Infrastructure Forum in 2018. We heard about the estimated A$140 billion infrastructure projects on the verge of approval in Australia.

The Conference was convened to address the challenge that public demand for engagement poses to these projects.

In the past decade, an estimated $20 billion of investment has been mothballed or significantly delayed due, in part, to a lack of community and stakeholder engagement.

68% of infrastructure investors are reportedly concerned about the socio-political risks, and research suggests that 45% of citizens believe that developers are socially irresponsible.

Reflecting on the conference message, John Fitzgerald, past head of Infrastructure Australia, responded:

“We have to sell the vision for and benefits of our developments better. This along with embracing transparency and organisational/public buy-in to an engagement approach are the most important improvements we can make.”

Programme Assessor, and former Queenstown-Lakes District Council Chief Executive, Adam Feeley, spoke to the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia NZ conference in 2018 about local government consultation. While overall engagement was strong, he noted a reluctance by councils to have difficult conversations about the viability and affordability of levels of service.

Using the OECD report’s phraseology, local government has not been effective in “inspiring dialogue”. Feeley said that the importance of good infrastructure to everyday life has not been well communicated and this conversation gap is a “missed opportunity”.

Returning to Tahunanui’s proposed cycleway, in August 2017, Nelson City reshaped the cycleway process to one of community co-design, stating:

“Based on the clear message from the previous public submissions the new approach places much stronger emphasis on including key stakeholders and the community in developing the final outcome of a preferred route for the cycleway.”

Chris Allen of Bicycle Nelson Bays spoke to the Nelson Mail about his appreciation for the co-design model, saying, “To stand back at the last minute and say, ‘actually, I think we could do this better’, is a very good outcome for everyone.”

So, where next for public engagement?

These are our key takeaway from the National Community Engagement for Infrastructure Forum, which reflect the principles of the OECD report:

  • Communicate the vision for the project in a more engaging way

  • Cover all the bases – don’t leave anyone out and treat everyone equally

  • Have complete transparency throughout the life of the project

  • Have an engagement strategy that traverses the life of the project

  • Implement an engagement philosophy integrated throughout an organisation’s culture

  • Be genuine about the process of engagement and elevate the importance of engagement to the same level as that of health and safety

  • Respect the role of elected members

  • Be agile and reflective of the results of engagement throughout the life of the project.

Good practice examples of infrastructure engagement are now emerging.

An example is Melbourne’s $6.7 billion West Gate Tunnel project to unclog traffic through Melbourne’s centre and to the city’s port. Involving new freeways, tunnels, and elevated highways, the project is similar to the raft of Auckland City transport projects but is integrated under one entity and procurement framework.

How’s this for a design fly-through? The West Gate Tunnel project in Melbourne is significant for more than just the scale of the highway; we can also learn from some of the engagement methods used.

The West Gate Tunnel’s engagement strategy is underpinned by transparency and clarity of information. It includes a mix of newsletters and online media channels, public information sessions, and an ongoing relationship with Community Liaison Groups, who give feedback throughout the project.

Complementing this engagement, the project is underpinned by a Social Procurement Framework, which is winning the hearts and minds of Melbournians. Sponsored by the Victorian government in 2018, the Social Procurement Framework creates jobs for those facing barriers to employment, including Aboriginal people, long-term job seekers, at-risk women, victims and survivors of family violence, people with disabilities, and youth.

The framework also increases access for social enterprises wanting to supply goods and services and offers investors the opportunity to incorporate social and environmental impacts into their decision making. In the West Gate Tunnel project, 6,000 new jobs are anticipated, including 500 apprentices and up to 150 jobs for former auto workers.

Are you making the most of online engagement?

The past decade has also seen an explosion of new digital engagement and information platforms.

We’re aware of over 60 different purpose-built online engagement tools. And there are many more if you count social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

One of our favourites is EngagementHQ by Bang the Table. The company is a specialist provider of online stakeholder engagement services to government and public sector and private enterprise clients. It includes a stakeholder engagement platform and participatory budgeting software.

In New Zealand, local and central government agencies are using it to engage communities and stakeholders through a suite of interactive tools. You can see it in action with Rotorua Lakes Council, Otago Regional Council and Regenerate Christchurch. Compare it to your own online portal and see how it stacks up.

In Australia, the engagement culture of organisations is being raised to the level that health and safety currently inhabits. Organisations cannot achieve the transparency, genuineness, and consistency of engagement unless it becomes part of the DNA of business values and practice.

A senior manager of a council recently confirmed this to me saying:

“We can change to being more partner-orientated in what we do, but we just don’t have those skills in the teams. So if we’re going to do this consistently, we have to make a big change right across council.”

Shifting your organisation’s mindset from “consultation” to “engagement”

Have you noticed the subtle shift of language in recent years from “consultation” to “engagement”?

The meaning of “engage” is derived from French, meaning “to pledge”. Reconnecting with communities today is not just a task to be given to the communications staff or a one-off consultation exercise at the start of a project.

Successful engagement needs to be a pledge from the entire organisation to enter into a good-faith journey with communities and partners, including iwi. It needs to have “off-ramps” and “on-ramps” right throughout the decision-making process and project-construction lifecycle.

The goalposts of community expectation have permanently shifted and so must your engagement competence.

Take your organisation’s community engagement to the next level

Does your organisation have a strategic approach to engagement or is it a bit hit-and-miss? As we’ve learned from Australia, infrastructure projects are most successful when an organisation pledges to engage for the whole project. And that requires leadership buy-in and staff capability.

If you’re looking ahead to some significant infrastructure projects - we can help your team navigate the turbulent waters of genuine engagement.