Community engagement critical in Australia's infrastructure race

Scrapping engagement to accelerate infrastructure can mean putting the brakes on contentious projects in the long-term.

To soften the blow of the pandemic-related downturn, all levels of government are working hard to push projects through expedited planning approvals while maintaining a focus on engagement. In New South Wales alone, 90 projects with an economic value of $25 billion have been fast-tracked, aiming to generate 50,791 jobs and deliver 26,446 dwellings.

To keep feeding the pipeline, governments will need to continue fast-tracking the next generation of projects through approvals. Doing so will release infrastructure investment that supports our economy, builds better communities and improves social outcomes.

It’s rare for broad stakeholder and community engagement to happen in the business case stage of projects (before they are funded). Proponents are often risk-averse and reluctant to engage when there are so many uncertainties about the project’s shape, feasibility, and ultimate likelihood of progressing to environmental approvals.

But in an environment when funding decisions are being accelerated, engagement is more critical than ever before.

 

Adding this discipline to the mix provides an early snapshot of stakeholder and community appetite for a project, a heads-up of likely risks, and the ability to baseline community acceptance or support.

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Engagement at this stage doesn’t need to be wide-scale, demographically representative engagement driven by quantitative research. To be pragmatic, the focus of engagement in the early phase of projects should be on small representative samples of communities that can help project teams gain additional insight into stakeholder values, drivers and motivations.

Investing in this kind of upfront engagement can help inform and smooth the way for projects over the long term. It allows project teams to be responsive to the motivations of government decision-makers and expedite funding decisions without skipping crucial community and stakeholder engagement that can hurt initiatives down the track.

Local is the new black

Our enforced working from home has morphed our geographic definition of ‘local’. The fundamental relevance of New Urbanism’s walkable local neighbourhood has been re-emphasised, as has Melbourne and Sydney’s respective 20-minute and 30-minute city ideals. More than ever communities want to be involved in the update, rethink or reinvention of places that matter to them.

For example, transport-oriented development initiatives—those that emphasise place-making and seek to deliver better connectivity, liveability and employment outcomes by strategically concentrating development around heavy rail transport corridors—has been the key city-shaping, catalytic infrastructure delivery model in our major cities for the past decade.

But as the global pandemic has given communities the opportunity to pause and assess what really matters in life, it’s likely that many people will refine or even re-define their take on value and benefit in terms of how they assess what they and their community gains from infrastructure investments.

This means that for robust project planning and to ensure shared understanding and community acceptance, projects proponents need to recalibrate their definitions of value and benefit to ensure community acceptance of projects that are being fast-tracked to delivery.

 

Questions and conversation starters

At a practical level, key engagement questions should seek to understand stakeholder and community values and aspirations for placemaking. These questions aim to start conversations that give sufficient credit to listeners by assuming they have the capacity to consider and provide useful feedback on a project despite its inherent uncertainties.

  • If this project proceeds in roughly [this form] in this [broad geographic] area, what would you like to improve as a result of this infrastructure going through here?
  • What do you value about this place that we should seek to preserve?
  • We know you understand that cities change and the people [of this area] have big visions for the future of their community. What type of neighbourhoods should we be designing for your grandchildren to live in?

These questions can be translated into community or stakeholder values that become functional requirements for the development, assessment and evaluation of project options.

 

Engaging early to make complex easy

At RPS, we work with clients to fit a pragmatic program of engagement into the program for business case development and project planning. By asking the right questions early, we wrap findings into options development, assessment and evaluation.

We have experience facilitating guided discussion groups to explore and understand community aspirations, stakeholder opportunities for shared or joint-use facilities opportunities and neighbourhood values.

Through vision and investment logic mapping workshops we test stakeholder acceptance of the ‘problem’ and bring a community lens to benefits, options and asset interventions.

The result is better projects that respond to local needs and are less likely a hit the brick wall of community opposition.  

Just because governments are mandating fast-tracked infrastructure to revive the economy, that does not mean we need to leave meaningful engagement on the cutting room floor. Understanding and advocating for impacted stakeholders and communities during project formation will flush out potential showstoppers, manage project risk and ultimately deliver better outcomes for government, stakeholders and the communities and places we are investing in.

 

Adding value through engagement

To discover how engaging the community early can work for your project, contact us.

Laura Fayers-Pooley

Associate Director - Communications

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