by Fleur Laurence, Integrated Infrastructure Partner, PwC

The Australian infrastructure sector is booming, with investment in public infrastructure over the next five years estimated to top $218 billion. But as the pace and scale of delivery increases, so too does the pressure on communities.

More than ever, communities want and expect to be involved in the decision-making and planning of major infrastructure programs – and why not? Major projects take time, require significant investment, impact communities and, critically, shape social outcomes for generations to come.

Timely delivery of major infrastructure can be an incredible enabler for social improvement. However, we still see significant community opposition to projects to the point where scope is minimised, costs increase, works are delayed and even cancelled. If communities’ views aren’t considered, no one wins. We get all the impacts that come with significant projects but none of the benefits.

Community concerns have major consequences for infrastructure projects

For projects to get past the starting block, ideally they’d first pass the public scrutiny of the ‘pub test’. Does the project provide value for money? Is this what taxpayers want their money to be spent on at this time? However, there’s rarely a real pub test, as these estimations are confidential and not shared publicly at this stage.

All being well, the project is announced and then progresses to the environmental assessment and approval stage. Communities can then have a say on potential environmental and social impacts both informally and formally through the submission process.

If a project will impact surrounding communities, is contentious, and engagement has been limited, the submission process during the environmental assessment stage can be protracted as a project team responds to each of the potentially thousands of individual submissions, addressing each concern.

Our communities are diverse, intelligent, and care – so responding to submissions comprehensively requires input from a range of subject matter experts. To be able to answer questions asked by community members, the proponent may have to make planning and delivery, and even design decisions, that they are not necessarily ready to make this early in the assessment stage.

Most people will only provide feedback in a formal submission process if they feel that it is important that their voice is heard. As a result, feedback received on major infrastructure projects during the environmental assessment stage is often negative.

It is also received at a time in a project’s development when the ability for this meaningful feedback to be acted upon is diminished – for example, a preferred option has been selected. It takes time for people to prepare a submission, it takes time for governments or other proponents to respond to submissions, and the experience on both sides is more often frustrating rather than constructive. Surely there is a better way?

If governments and project proponents were willing to bring communities in earlier, these frustrations may be alleviated on both sides.

So why doesn’t this happen? Perhaps it is because governments and project proponents don’t trust that communities will accept the ambiguities and realities of project planning during the early concept stage.

So why not involve the community earlier?

Broadly speaking, people want to understand what is going on in their neighbourhood and their region, and they want to contribute to the planning of infrastructure because they know that they can provide an important perspective.

They can provide meaningful information about their circumstances and their local area to help governments or developers test that the project being planned is hitting the mark and will create better social outcomes.

Early involvement is effective and powerful; it demonstrates that community opinions matter and that people’s experience and knowledge are valued as part of the planning and decisionmaking process. It also creates trust – and with trust comes the licence to govern and deliver essential infrastructure for people.

However, in the early planning stages of major projects, some information will be confidential (i.e. commercial in confidence). There will also be uncertainty about whether a project will proceed and what it will look like.

Communities are therefore often engaged only when a business case has been finalised or funding has been approved – which could be years after a project has been placed on a priority infrastructure list and is out in the public domain. This creates a vacuum of information, and nothing can fill a void more quickly than an emotive social media campaign (it doesn’t even have to be true).

Those planning major infrastructure projects often genuinely don’t want to upset people unnecessarily by telling them that a road may be built through their property, when it is still only one of many options being considered. For those potentially affected, it is understandably difficult to think rationally about this, but a lack of information can foster even more distrust.

In addition, as funding for major projects is usually staged, it is also often impossible to provide certainty on the next step of the project until the budget has been confirmed, which further exacerbates feelings of distrust within the community.

If left unattended, distrust becomes outrage. Without the trust of the community, it’s difficult to deliver important infrastructure – and that means wasted money, wasted time, and stress all round. Establishing and maintaining trust takes time and continual effort. The earlier trust is gained with communities, the easier it is to negotiate shared beneficial outcomes. But trust is a two-way street.

What would happen if governments and developers started to trust communities more and involve them earlier? What if governments worried less about not being able to initially provide certainty to communities, and became more comfortable communicating ambiguity with sensitivity and transparency?

This would require the government or other proponents to be honest with communities about not yet having all the answers, and for communities to trust that this uncertainty is okay.

Community engagement is the solution

To enable positive partnerships among governments or developers and communities, the people who will live in and around the new infrastructure and its users must be engaged early. This will help to keep projects on the right track to meet the community’s needs now and into the future.

Governments or other proponents of major projects can improve engagement, minimise costly delays and create better project outcomes by:

♦ Creating a safe environment that encourages communities to get involved

♦ Involving communities in the early planning process and treating them as a partner

♦ Engaging in a way that works for all community members

♦ Championing the benefits of community voices

♦ Being actively inclusive by making the effort to engage with those who are hard to reach and making it easy for them to provide feedback

♦ Using insights from community engagement to get better at including communities in the planning process

♦ Assessing community engagement as a critical success factor, and a risk if communities are not engaged

♦ Being creative in ways to seek and consider community feedback throughout the project lifecycle

♦ Paying it forward – engaging with the operators of the asset once constructed to ensure they understand the community and are set up to keep engaging with the community during the operation of the infrastructure

Engaging communities doesn’t have to be complicated. We know that people want to get involved. We know that early and frequent engagement works. Gaining and maintaining the trust of communities minimises the risk of a project not proceeding and creates better outcomes. But trust cuts both ways.

Communities often don’t trust governments and developers because it can feel like governments and developers don’t trust them enough to be included in the early planning of infrastructure when their voice really matters.

It’s time for governments and developers to trust communities more and to partner with them from the outset of projects, so that together we can create the infrastructure solutions our societies and environments will continue to need.

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