To appreciate the consequence of poor stakeholder engagement on major building and infrastructure projects in Australia, one only has to look at the debacle surrounding the former government’s East West Link development in Victoria.

Billed by the then Napthine government as creating an alternative to Melbourne’s only current existing Monash-CityLink-Westgate Freeway cross city road corridor, the project – upon which the result of the 2014 state election was largely decided – was put to Victorians without a business case or traffic projections.

The federal government threatened that money earmarked for the project would be lost if it did not go ahead and word emerged about a secret ‘side letter’ signed by then-Treasurer Michael O’Brien guaranteeing that taxpayers would pay compensation to the winning bidder if the project was cancelled as the state’s then opposition had promised it would be if it was elected. All that even after repeated surveys over several years had shown that voters would rather spend money on rail projects instead.

Not surprisingly, the Napthine government was thumped on polling day and a project which will cost Victorians almost $1 billion will never be built.

This is far from an isolated example. Workers on many coal seam gas projects have found themselves confronted with locked gates and angry farmers. In building, developments such as shopping centre expansion or new multi-residential apartments can raise localised concerns about crowded streets, noise and lost views, while industrial type developments provoke worry about noise, pollution and bad smells.

Even relatively vanilla projects can create backlashes; a proposal for a McDonalds store in Melbourne’s outer east suburb of Tecoma at the foothills of the Dandenong Ranges drew more than 1,000 objections and more than two years of protest; the store was eventually built after a council rejection of the proposal was overruled in the Victorian Civil Appeals Tribunal.

So where do things go wrong, and what can be done instead?

A common mistake, International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) Australasia CEO Michelle Blicavs says, revolves around a failure to engage early enough and a tendency to wait until a decision is made or close to being made prior to the initiation of community consultation. This situation, she says, will result in many feeling decisions have been ‘forced’ upon them.

“Whether it is government or private sector, often – and I won’t say always, but often – a decision is made before they consult with the local community,” she said.

“We see that better, more sustainable and cheaper decisions are made when at the beginning of the project…(decision makers sit down and say) ‘let’s talk to the local people about what it might look like and get their views on it before we go any further. Before we map out the designs and spend thousands of dollars doing 3D diagrams, let’s actually have a conversation and try to understand the impact that this is going to have.’”

While there are numerous examples of poor engagement, there are also signs of growing awareness about the importance of good practice in this area. In South Australia, for example, Premier Jay Weatherill recently launched a Reforming Democracy strategy which he said would outline how citizens can play a decisive role in critical decisions within the state and placed ‘people’ at the centre of policy making. Weatherill credits his surprise re-election last year in part to his ability to genuinely listen.

Moreover, numerous examples of good practice stand out.

When planning wastewater infrastructure to cater for the South West Growth Centre, for example, Sydney Water together with its consultant GHD provided affected landowners with up-to-date project information and meaningful opportunities for feedback through information sessions held at varying times during both day and night, newsletters, personal letters and up-to-date website information. Experienced representatives from both organisations were able to explain the implications of what was proposed and advocate on the part of landowners to both other government agencies and the delivery contractor.

As a result, pipeline alignments were able to be amended to accommodate landowner needs. Specific property owner requirements during construction – such as continuity of access for rural and related businesses – were able to be negotiated and documented in pre-construction agreements, scheduled and priced into the offer to Sydney Water.

In another example, the Moorebank Intermodal Company, which is overseeing the development of the Moorebank Intermodal Terminal in Sydney’s south, partnered with advocacy group New Democracy Foundation to set up a ‘citizens jury’ of members from culturally and linguistically diverse communities. The jury’s role was to help identify a package of measures which could benefit communities impacted by traffic, noise and visual effects from the project. Assistance was provided to enable jury members to understand complex project information and to work together to share opinions and critically analyse information in a culturally diverse environment.

As a result, money spent on assisting these communities is being invested in accordance with priorities that the communities themselves have determined.

Blicavs says engagement should take place using means (preferably a variety of means) which are convenient and accessible, adding that it is also important to be clear on what is and is not negotiable (budgets, for example, are often set) and on the level of participation you are seeking.

It is also necessary to have critical decision makers on board with the engagement process and at least listening carefully to the outcome.

Blicavs says people no longer accept anything short of genuine engagement.

“For many years, decision making has been ‘decide, announce and defend,’” Blicavs said. “So the government will decide something, they’ll announce it and defend their decision to the hilt.

“We’ve got to move beyond that. I think it’s being recognised much more broadly now that the community is too smart and they are not going to put up with that. We need to move much more toward an engaging approach where we are clearly talking with communities about what is in their best interests and listening to them.”

Core Values in Public Participation

According to IAP2, there are seven core values which underpin effective practices for public participation. According to those principles, it is key that public participation:

  1. Is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.
  2. Includes the promise that the public’s contribution will influence the decision.
  3. Promotes sustainable decisions by recognising and communicating the needs and interests of all participants, including decision makers.
  4. Seeks out and facilitates the involvement of those potentially affected by or interested in a decision.
  5. Seeks input from participants in designing how they participate.
  6. Provides participants with the information they need to participate in a meaningful way.
  7. Communicates to participants how their input affected the decision.