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Engagement key to unlocking social value

With governments increasingly seeking to leverage their infrastructure investment to deliver broader social benefits, timely and effective engagement has an even bigger part to play in project success.

07 June 2021
Alistair Kingston

Australia

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This article was originally published by the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2). Alistair is a member of IAP2's Australasian Board of Directors. 

The significant infrastructure programs being delivered around Australia and New Zealand mean project proponents have made great strides over the past decade in how, when and why they engage communities.

Engagement is now recognised as an integral project activity, and governments are being increasingly transparent about how community and stakeholder feedback has shaped their projects.

However, the time has come for another step-change in our thinking about the role engagement plays in projects.

Changing the conversation

Our first conversation with communities and stakeholders needs to not be about where the project’s going, what it looks like or the impacts it may have.

Our first conversation needs to be about the social value the project could deliver.

This requires a shift in thinking – seeing a public transport project, for example, as being about more than getting people from A to B more effectively.

We need to be thinking and talking about what getting people from A to B actually means – in terms of access to employment and education, better environmental outcomes, and the impacts on community health and prosperity.

We need to ensure the right initiatives, partnerships and processes are in place to deliver value, setting the project up for success. Furthermore, we need to quantify social value so it can be used to support investment decisions.

Ultimately, it’s about making social value an integral part of a project’s DNA.

The role of effective engagement

Engagement plays a crucial part in realising and delivering social value.

Early and effective engagement with the people who’ll benefit from a project, and also those who may experience impacts, is critical to understanding what is, what could be, and what’s important.

This looks like using social research to identify and baseline the current state. This looks like having deeper conversations to really explore and understand a community, its challenges, and its aspirations for the future.

This looks like working with project teams to ensure social value is considered, and mechanisms for creating it are included in each stage of the project lifecycle.

This looks like engaging with the community, sometimes over a longer term beyond project completion to track the value and benefits the project has delivered over the long term.

Time to be brave

Shifting our approach to focus on social value requires bravery.

Project proponents need to change their thinking about benefits and be prepared to have deeper conversations with communities, taking action on what they hear.

This includes the bravery to ask different questions than we have been asking, and to ask these questions earlier in the project lifecycle. Too often engagement programs are dominated by discussion of impacts as communities are being engaged too late in the process, and the solution that’s being proposed doesn’t respond to their needs or aspirations.

Engagement practitioners also need to be brave.

We need to continue to be the proponents and champions of having the right conversations, with the right people at the right time, and helping to shift the conversations our projects are having with our communities.

This shift has already begun internationally, with social value identification, creation and capture a key part of many major infrastructure projects in the UK.

As practitioners, we have an integral part to play in ensuring this evolved conversation happens more and more here in Australia and New Zealand, and helping our projects that deliver more, so that everyone benefits.

Alistair Kingston

Executive General Manager - Insights, Communications and Creative