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Nicola Wass: Why community voices matter

RPS’ Technical Director Engagement, Nicola, has a strong sense of justice and fairness that has seen her carve out a 30-year career in community engagement, with multiple accolades to her name. 

23 February 2024
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A champion for diverse voices

When it comes to decisions about how our cities, communities, and cultures can thrive, Nicola Wass is a firm advocate for every community member to have a voice.

“We're all in it together, and we all have a right to have a say and to influence decisions that can impact our lives,” she says.
Nicola sees her career in community engagement as more of a calling, with the work aligning closely with her core personal values.

“I am driven to some extent by a sense of fairness, by a concern for intergenerational equity, and by wishing to leave a more positive legacy than we might otherwise  have.”

According to Nicola, community engagement is about making sure there’s an opportunity for everybody to be part of a conversation that affects them.

“It's about understanding all the different perspectives, so that they can be balanced, because most things in life are a trade-off.”

“For organisations, and for government, it’s important to understand these perspectives deeply, so that when they’re making those trade-offs, they're doing it in a really informed way that reflects the community’s perspectives.” 

Then and now: three decades of stakeholder engagement

When Nicola first stepped into the engagement space, she was working in the public sector for a self-funded statutory authority and took on the task of organising engagement activities and research. Back then, engagement as we know it now, never really existed. Nicola recalls, “organisations, and government in particular, used to do what's now called, decide and defend.”

“They’d say, ‘we’ve made a decision, here’s what we’re doing; we’re the experts. And then they’d defend that decision. Engagement is much more integrated into organisations these days. It has changed so much more for the better.”

It wasn’t until the early 1990s that community engagement or public participation became seen as a profession, with the launch of the International Association for Public Practitioners (IAP3).   Since then, this name has changed to IAP2 to include all people involved in public participation, not just formal practitioners.

In Australia, we’ve welcomed this newish occupation and the concept of intentional interactions between communities and decision makers, more than most. 

“It certainly used to be true that Australia had more IAP2 members than the rest of the world combined.”

“The extent to which the IAP2 approach has been embraced by organisations and government, and the community says to me there's something about Australian culture that is consistent with the whole idea of engagement.” 

RPS' Technical Director Engagement, Nicola stands in a city town square wearing a white t-shirt and a orange and green scarf draped around her neck. Her backdrop is of palms trees and a white building with many large windows.
Sydney CBD on Farrer Place

Leading engagement for better outcomes

Nicola says, “We engage not just because it’s the right thing to do but because it actually gets better outcomes.” The seasoned practitioner sharpened her craft for community engagement at Sydney’s boutique specialist engagement consultancy, Straight Talk. This led to her current role after the agency was acquired by RPS, almost six years ago.

Since then, she’s traversed our sunburnt country, working on complex projects from major infrastructure to social and environmental policies. With private sector, government, and consultancy experience behind her, Nicola is a master facilitator, project manager, and problem-solver with specialisation in co-design and deliberative processes.

Her imprint can be found across multifaceted projects such as TasNetworks’ Project Marinus, Preston Market Precinct’s Structure Plan, the landscape vision and framework of the Southern Parklands, and the community benefits program for the Moorebank Intermodal Terminal.

According to Nicola, “It’s completely meaningless if engagement outcomes don't influence decisions.”
She argues that best practice is simply a fit for purpose community engagement approach which involves activities that are delivered at the right time, and ultimately influences decision-making.

“We work closely with our clients to understand the sorts of challenges they have and the opportunities that they're addressing; whether that’s a policy decision or a project. What we then do is strategise and identify the most appropriate and effective way of engaging with stakeholders and community on that issue or project.”  

“We spend time doing detailed analysis about who may be impacted, who's going to be interested in being involved, how they can influence decisions, how technical the content is, and what it's possible to influence – and then we design a fit for purpose engagement approach that reflects the content. Finally, we get the sorts of feedback that the client needs to make decisions. And every engagement process creates the foundation for the next one,” she adds. 

Nicola sits second from left wearing a blue, black, green and white floral dress with a panel of four at the 2022 Large Scale Solar Conference in Brisbane.
The 2022 Large Scale Solar Conference in Brisbane

Drawn to projects with depth and complexity

While Nicola has worked on an array of challenging projects over the years; designing effective and practical engagement strategies, there’s one project that stands out as a highlight: the Youth Panel she proposed, designed, and delivered for the North West Transmission Developments (NWTD) project.

The NWTD is a once in a generation upgrade to Tasmania’s energy network and infrastructure, including 240 kilometres of new and upgraded transmission lines, delivered through TasNetworks. While the project sets out to put Tasmania on the map as a world-leading renewable energy provider, like any infrastructure project it has the potential to impact communities during the construction phase, and once operational.

In the lead up to this project, Nicola gathered a Youth Panel who then used co-design principles to establish the Community Benefits Sharing Program. This meant collecting and collating community feedback, drafting a framework that sought to prioritise community values and needs, and delivering its final recommendations.

Nicola says this project was especially fulfilling to work on as it supported young people to find their voice; members of the community who will live alongside the network the longest.

“Often the people you hear from are older, and they aren't going to be around possibly when projects are starting to even be constructed, let alone for the whole life cycle of 70 years, or whatever the timeframe may be.”

“We've now got 15 talented young people (18 to 25 years old) with more engagement experience, a lot more interest, a lot more confidence, and they have gone onto do other things.”

This was an experience Nicola says she’ll relish as one of her most memorable moments.

“My role, particularly as a facilitator, was to create a safe space. I provided them with the tools to have conversations, and for them to come up with their recommendations. After the Youth Panel provided their final recommendations, it was just approved by the board, pretty well unchanged.”

“People are interested in what they've got to say; what they've got to say has value. I helped guide them through a process where they were able to deliver really good outcomes, and they are super proud of what they've achieved, as they should be.”

At the 2023 IAP2 Australasia Core Value Awards, the Youth Panel and the Community Benefits Sharing Program received the highly commended honour, with RPS listed as the engagement partner.

Common myths, misconceptions, and challenges

To be a great engagement facilitator Nicola believes you must be a servant of the process, check your ego at the door, and never confuse the job with advocacy.

“Sometimes people come into it thinking they're going to be able to stand up for people, and it's not about that. It's about providing a platform for others to use their own voice. Equally, it's never about convincing people. Engagement is about providing credible, clear, and transparent information about what something involves and what the impacts may be, so that people can make informed decisions about how they want to respond.”

“Often we see attempts to influence people to take a favourable view about a project but it actually creates opposition.”

Nicola explains that part of being human is that we’re not always going to agree, and we don’t always have the same level of knowledge around a topic. She says this presents a challenge for the engagement process, describing scenarios where sometimes emotions can run high, people become polarised, and information is misconstrued.

“There may be some people who are not happy about the project or who oppose the project. There'll be people that don't know anything about the project. They’ll be people who are neutral. They’ll be people who might think it’s a good idea because they want local jobs, for example. There will be people who are genuinely impacted. So, you get a cross section of people.”

The art of community engagement lies in presenting facts to such a diverse audience.

“The role of the engagement practitioner is to support a process that ensures everybody feels comfortable about participating. Keeping those wholly passionate people involved in the conversation and giving them genuine opportunities to share their views. But also allowing the broader community to participate. It’s about really understanding all those elements so that we're creating the right expectations with stakeholders and community.”

“One of the challenges is not allowing angry voices to intimidate others into being quiet. The best experience is when there's a group of people who recognise that theirs is not the only view in the room, and who are open to hearing from and listening to others.” 

Leaving a positive engagement legacy

When you take a snapshot of our communities, we find people at different stages of life. Some are growing young families, some are preparing for retirement, while others embark on student life. But despite these differences; with people living inside their own orbit, Nicola reminds us that “broadly speaking, we all share the same values.” 

“We're just in different life stages and different things are important to us depending on where we're at in our lives. So, it’s important to hear from everybody because everybody has a legitimate perspective about things, and we're all in different places.” 

After five years of working in RPS’ Melbourne office, Nicola has now moved her base to her childhood home of Sydney as she takes up a national role as Technical Director Engagement. While she’s looking forward to reconnecting with her old stomping ground, she’s also set her sights on leading engagement in an exciting new sector: the renewable energy transition currently taking place across the country. Along with this, Nicola will continue to work across an array of projects around the country and is likely to pop up in a state near you.   

As Nicola prepares to notch up another trip around the sun, her vision for the engagement space continues to be fostering the ability to have difficult conversations in a respectful way. 

“It's being able to create an environment where people can move past outrage, and where we can have respectful, safe conversations that are inclusive and that deliver constructive outcomes, so that everyone leaves feeling their involvement was a worthwhile use of their time.” 

Do you have an engagement project that needs Nicola’s expertise?

Communications and engagement
RPS Technical Director Engagement, Nicola, stands in front of a historic building in a country town intersection wearing a blue, white, and red floral patterned dress.
Wellington, central west NSW

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