This morning, RPS hosted Community Engagement in Infrastructure: Delivering Outcomes Across Disciplines in Sydney.
A collaboration between RPS, IAP2 Australasia and the Next Generation Engagement Project, the event brought representatives from the infrastructure consulting industry together to discuss what community engagement means for the sector, and how discipline leads can work together to incorporate a more well-rounded engagement approach that benefits projects and communities both.
The panel, which included representatives from a range of professional disciplines–commercial, delivery, engagement, legal, planning and policy–shared their experiences with community engagement for major infrastructure in Australia. Here are some key take-aways from the discussion!
Commercial: Sam Cook, Director at Infrasol
Delivery: Fiona Christiansen, Senior Program Manager leading Parramatta Light Rail Stage 2
Engagement: Rachel Fox, National Discipline Leader, Stakeholder & Community Engagement at RPS
Legal: Nick Thomas, Partner at Clayton Utz
Planning: Martin Reason, Executive Director, Infrastructure & Delivery at NSW Department of Planning and Environmen
Policy: Robert Montgomery, Chief Economist and Head of Policy at IPA
Insight 1: early engagement a time-saver, not a time-waster
A key point raised by our panellists was the focus that should be placed on integrating engagement into the decision-making process, particularly on projects where commercial and legal aspects are a particular focus.
It was highlighted that an estimated $20 billion worth of projects have been delayed, modified or cancelled following negative community involvement, and the panel agreed that the industry has a major opportunity to improve the way community engagement is incorporated into projects by establishing partnerships, working in collaboration with other disciplines and enhancing the products and processes of engagement.
Insight 2: engagement is an opportunity to better align outcomes with expectations
Community engagement has grown significantly as a profession over the past decade and members of the panel were asked to consider the positive contributions this growth in engagement has made on their own work. A push to engage early with communities was identified as a key driver, in addition to the greater focus being placed on meeting community expectations and aspirations.
Speaking from a legal perspective, Nick Thomas from Clayton Utz explained how important social engagement was to his discipline and highlighted a number of key benefits, including reductions in project timeframes and costs during the assessment and approval process, reductions in legal risk and less interference by regulators as a result.
Robert Montgomery from IPA noted that community engagement is no longer just seen as a tick-a-box exercise, but a tool that can be used to progress a project while incorporating new and innovative ideas. It allows project proponents to engage in more representative conversations that incorporate perspectives from across society, not just those who have strong views, he said.
Adding her insights from a delivery perspective, Senior Program Manager for Parramatta Light Rail, Fiona Christiansen agreed, highlighting the importance of a balanced approach to community consultation. She said that all too often the tendency was to focus on stakeholders directly affected by a project, when in fact we should widen our approach and engage with the broader community in conversations about how they can benefit.
Insight 3: transparency wins the day
Transparency was identified as a key aspect of community engagement–more specifically ensuring that the community understands the part they play and how they can be involved. Commercial specialist Sam Cook highlighted the need for a continual process of community engagement from early in the planning phase right through until infrastructure is delivered, rather than consultation that is limited to the regulatory phase.
His views were echoed by Martin Reason from the NSW Department of Planning and Environment who spoke of the need to engage the community through all key stages of a project and to raise their understanding of the planning, selection and delivery phases in particular. Martin also highlighted the importance of creating different engagement approaches for different stakeholders, recognising what they can offer to the project at certain stages.
Insight 4: speak your community’s language
One question put to the panel was how changing the conversation and dialogue around engagement as a discipline might stimulate a greater focus on community engagement by the infrastructure industry more broadly.
RPS Stakeholder and Community Engagement Discipline Leader Rachel Fox talked about the importance of speaking a language that resonates with non-engagement professionals, and of articulating the quantifiable and tangible benefits of community engagement, rather than just focusing on its value in reducing project risk.
Questions were then taken from attendees, who drew from their own experiences and raised interesting points about the concept of engagement as a human right, the importance of organisational structures that supports community engagement from the top, whether the weighting of community engagement is significant enough, and whether recent state government moves to increase community engagement in local project decision-making could actually raise expectations too high and result in disappointment.
Community engagement is a field that has experienced incredible growth over the past decade, and this was reflected in the great conversation had this morning between six professionals from very different career backgrounds! RPS would like to thank our event partners IAP2 and the Next Generation Engagement Project as well as all of our panellists. Keep an eye on our LinkedIn feed and the IAP2 website for future opportunities to join the conversation!
Got a question about community engagement? Get in touch with an RPS specialist
Discipline Leader – Stakeholder & Community Engagement
(02) 9248 9800
Words by: Phoebe Schumacher
20 June 2018