When it comes to infrastructure, the idea of providing a second Yarra River crossing in Melbourne’s west and linking up the Eastern Freeway in the inner east with the Tullamarine Freeway in the inner north-east and the Metropolitan Ring Road in the west may have seemed to represent basic common sense.
Yet it was in fact this project which largely toppled the Napthine Liberal government in the Victorian state election of 2014.
Whilst objections to the road were varied, the way in which it was communicated and sold to the public did not help. Key details about its business case were being withheld even though the contract to build the first stage had been signed. When the opposition Labor Party promised to cancel the project if it won office, Napthine warned voters (correctly) that this would expose taxpayers to significant compensation payouts. The federal coalition government, meanwhile, told Victorians they would lose $3 billion in Commonwealth funding which had been allocated toward the project if it did not go ahead.
In short, Victorians were being asked to approve a multi-billion dollar development for which they would see no business case and were being threatened about the consequences if they said no. Not surprisingly, Napthine was thumped in the election and the contract was subsequently cancelled – the incoming Labor government later releasing the business case which in fact indicated a return of just 80 cents for every dollar invested even after wider economic benefits were included.
This is not the only instance where poor stakeholder communication has had serious consequences. Exploration of coal-seam gas (CSG) is now permanently banned in Victoria and has been the subject of intense opposition in other states.
Whilst CSG may have been controversial by nature, the industry’s communication strategies have not been great. Leaked emails which surfaced in February 2015, for instance, suggest that the amount of gas which energy giant AGL had told government officials on September 5 the year before that it had believed had gushed up from a well near homes in Spring Farm near Sydney during a leak on August 31 could be as much as 100,000 standard cubic feet – 10 times the amount which the company publicly reported later on September 30. Whilst AGL later said that the initial estimate provided to the government had been intentionally conservative, this earlier figure had been withheld from the public and the company had held onto its report into the incident for a full two weeks after providing it to the Environmental Protection Authority before releasing it publicly.
These may be extreme examples, but the reality is that engineers must communicate with a broad range of stakeholders throughout various stages of projects. As well as the general community, these can include clients, regulators and suppliers/contractors as well as internal stakeholders such as managers, colleagues and employees/subordinates.
Costs associated with poor communication are not always readily quantifiable. According to Peter Bartos, an independent consultant on organisational change, those associated with poor external stakeholder communication can extend beyond the loss of clients and encompass broader reputational damage.
When it comes to internal stakeholders, Bartos says poor communication can lead to uncertainty about what needs to be delivered and a resulting tendency to work to rule. This draws the focus away from problem solving outcomes along with absenteeism, lower productivity, internal politicking and, in more extreme cases, sabotage, corruption (or a tendency to look the other way in the face of questionable behaviour) and the fudging of key performance indicators.
In terms of how to go about it, Bartos stresses that communication as a two-way process which extends beyond information exchange and involves understanding by each of the parties and a commitment to mutual problem solving. In addition, whilst many engineers tend to have a strong focus around technical matters, he says it is important to appreciate that communication has a social dimension attached to it in addition to the technical dimension. This social element, he says, should be approached in a rational manner through logical consideration of the types of communication which need to happen with each of the relevant stakeholder groups.
An example, he says, can be seen through the National Broadband Network. In the early days of the project, he said, much communication by way of its benefits revolved around technical considerations such as greater speeds. Instead, he said, greater focus could have been given to how the development would help to deliver practical benefits in terms of the economy, healthcare and social interaction. These could include more readily available remote monitoring to enable people to obtain better healthcare within their homes or workers being able to use the technology to reduce the number of times in which they had to go in to the office.
“A lot of communication started off with looking at it (the NBN) just technically such as how we are going to get terrific speeds and all that sort of stuff,” Bartos said.
"That’s fine, but the community might have been confused about what the real benefits are. You could highlight things such as how this might impact the area of health, how it might impact the ease with which people do their work and how they might be able to communicate with their families much more easily.
“The picture painted was about the technical features. My disappointment was that the picture wasn’t built about how it would actually solve things and make things better for people in the community.”
Furthermore, Bartos says, there is no particular need for project managers to take on responsibility for the entire communication effort themselves. Indeed, he said, what is critical is to have communication capability within the team. Companies like Optus, he says, have change managers on their team, whilst it may be worthwhile to look at hiring a public relations manager for some projects.
Engineers must not underestimate the importance of effective stakeholder communication.
With a few simple strategies, the chances of successfully navigating this area will be improved.