The rise of the mega-project and the response of the community

Mega-projects are the driving force behind the growing infrastructure market in Queensland.

According to IAQ and QMCA’s 2019 Major Projects Pipeline Report, by 2021/22, 89 per cent of major funded project work will be in projects with a value of more than $500 million.

The concentration of mega-projects has significant implications not only for industry competitiveness and sustainability, but for communities that have to bear the brunt of the impact. For the community, a mega-project means worksites on multiple fronts, long-term disruptions and construction fatigue.

The face of Queensland has changed dramatically over the last decade and communities have become more sophisticated in their expectations of engagement and how to raise the alarm when they are not being heard.

It is not surprising then that with these mega-projects, we can expect mega-outrage from communities if we don’t manage engagement properly from the beginning.

Communities are well equipped to make their voices heard, and be counted! They are also well informed and motivated to legitimately challenge mega-projects arriving on their doorsteps. It can take just one voice, a letterbox drop or Facebook post to draw attention to their message.

The speed at which one person’s message can be amplified widely through digital and social media channels can be virtually instantaneous. Anyone can influence, with a message, voice and audience.

Well-planned and authentic consultation is an integral part of project delivery, helping projects to seek their ultimate goal of achieving acceptance and its social licence. Failure to do so is at a project’s peril and takes people down an alternative pathway which can move very quickly from confusion to resistance, and ultimately to outrage.

Teams delivering mega-projects have to be more cognisant than ever of the importance of working with communities to achieve better outcomes for all involved.

Outrage is the end of a journey

No one starts from a position of ‘outrage’. Instead, it is found at the end of a journey, which may have started with confusion, lack of understanding or maybe, a sense of unfairness. Outrage can also escalate quickly and can appear to come out of nowhere. One of the challenges is that outrage may come from unexpected places and not necessarily from the most heavily impacted community members.

Anyone can be heard

In its simplest form, ‘clicktivism’ through ‘sharing’ and ‘liking’ allows anyone to respond easily to any topic or discussion that crosses their news feed.  Since social media’s algorithms place precedence on viral content, the more sensational or alarming the commentary, the more rapid and widespread the ‘news’ will travel. This snowball effect often results in one person’s outrage garnering much more exposure, and support, than it would have done before the prevalence of social media.

Everyone has a voice

Social media and the Internet allow anyone to be a publisher. Outraged community members no longer require the interest of a traditional media outlet to broadcast their concerns. It is also common for specific communities, such as suburbs, to have their own private Facebook group in which campaigns are planned. Local elected representatives are often part of these groups and can find themselves in the midst of heated, outraged community discussion.

Communities are well resourced

Community groups are better resourced than ever before and may already be mobilised from other recent projects.  Communities may have seen their neighbours mobilise against a past project, searched for a ‘how to’ guide or attended a training session providing creative ways to disrupt.  They can tap into the skills and expertise of members and crowdsource for money. In many instances, they can move faster than the project team.

 24-hour news

Whether it is self-publishing on the Internet, the proliferation of 24-hour news or the continuous streaming and updating of associated online media, there is a constant outlet for information, misinformation and personal opinion.  Stories that show community members challenging projects generate more ‘clicks’, ‘likes’ or ‘shares’ than a ceremonial golden shovel breaking ground.

Getting ahead of outrage

How do you avoid outrage? The simple answer is to stop it from happening it in the first place.

Entrenched views persist and are difficult to change. Trying to manage outrage will drain a project’s budget, divert resources and impact timelines.  It has the potential to undermine confidence, jeopardise potential investment, generate unwanted political attention, impact policy decisions and could ultimately stop a project dead in its tracks.

Instead, project teams must recognise the critical role the community can play in creating best for community and best for project outcomes.

To avoid outrage and seek positive community relationships, projects should consider the following ten key principles:

  1. Be authentic

Shift away from the belief that engagement is a box ticking activity and can be achieved with an email newsletter or letterbox update. Remember, the project is the outsider.  Understand the communities where your project will operate and the diverse views and people that make it up. Understand what is important to them and how they prefer to engage.  Anything less than genuine engagement will be called out for what it is.

  1. Be equitable and inclusive

It is easy to get caught up with those who shout the loudest. Ensure you reach the entire community, as what is important to one person may be different for their neighbour. Also, provide inclusive and safe ways for communities to interact with the project. Passionate views sometimes shut out other members of the community who may feel uncomfortable or that their perspective is less important than the person with a Facebook page or placard.

  1. Acknowledge project limitations

Tackle project limitations head-on.  Meaningful engagement with the community in the early stages will assist with setting realistic expectations while also seeking better solutions.

  1. Be accountable

Establish a reputation for transparency, inclusiveness, accessibility, consistency and fairness that helps to build and maintain relationships and partnership in the community.  Be realistic and accurate when making commitments and then follow through and honour them.  Being responsive and accountable to the community fosters trust and builds reputation for the company and the project.

  1. Design conflict resolution processes

Design a process for conflict resolution together with stakeholders at the outset.  This helps to maintain trust by providing an appropriate framework to resolve differences that arise between project imperatives and community expectations.

  1. Listen

Genuine engagement includes active listening.  Be committed to seeking solutions and understand that this includes being prepared to compromise.  Listening allows projects to develop a genuine understanding of the nature of the community and knowing what is negotiable and what is not.

  1. Seek local knowledge

Interested and impacted residents know more about the community than you ever will and can provide valuable and often critical insight about how to achieve best for project and best for community outcomes. 

  1. Identify third party advocates

As communities become more politically engaged, vocal and better resourced, the challenge is cutting through and identifying key opinion leaders and influencers.  Work to identify key voices that can help share your story and, in some cases, even counter misinformation.

  1. Seek community participation

Active engagement is a two-way process that must occur early to be authentic. Trusted responsive relationships and partnerships increase the likelihood of improved community and project outcomes.

  1. Do it right, the first time

Communities can have a multi-generational memory so you may have only one chance to get it right. Once you lose trust, it can be very difficult to regain.  Done well, engagement establishes mutually beneficial relationships for the long-term and can help win support for the project in the court of public opinion.

Phillips Group is a leading communication and engagement consultancy. We specialise in working with organisations and government to design and implement genuine two-way communication that lead to more informed, engaged and supportive communities and key stakeholders. Our successful workforce engagement programs have delivered significant benefits to projects throughout Queensland. Visit www.phillipsgroup.com.au.