Why every project needs a social impact evaluation

When we talk about infrastructure, it all comes down to community. The strategies we develop, the policies we set and the projects we deliver are focused on improving productivity, liveability and connectivity.

We know that a well delivered project can bring about immense social improvements in the way people go about their daily lives. Infrastructure has a direct impact on community wellbeing, people’s happiness, health and welfare for this generation and those that follow.

And communities know this too. In conversations with community members, there is always a focus on what’s in it for me. And that’s not necessarily at a micro-level of individual impact; many community members think in terms of their generational families, their neighbourhood, their city and even their region.

To effect meaningful and sustained change for society, every project needs a social impact evaluation (SIE). We need to truly understand the benefits of infrastructure for communities. This is not just about engaging the community in a feel-good exercise to elicit their feedback.

An SIE is a rigorous, research-based, unbiased assessment of the positive and negative social impacts that can result from a project.

It must be informed by stakeholder and community input that is gathered through a range of methodologies, including consultation, in-depth interviews and surveys. And importantly, an SIE must be calibrated according to the findings of other project assessments including economics, technical and market sounding.

It makes a lot of sense that SIE is undertaken during the feasibility stage of the project where there is the greatest potential to influence change.

Identify value early

Undertaking a social impact evaluation at the feasibility phase of the project enables governments to build value into projects early. This can help avoid a lot of angst further down the track.

By identifying the positive impacts, and seeking to enhance them, governments and future proponents can have evidence-based conversations with communities about the benefits of infrastructure.

Often the social value that comes from projects can take years to bring about. Initiatives identified through the SIE can involve long-term partnerships with industry or other levels of government, or require elements built into the design that need specific expertise.

A project with a well-developed SIE at the outset can focus on delivering social value all the way through the procurement, delivery and operational phases, without having to implement a hastily, and sometimes ill-conceived, social performance plan in response to community and stakeholder outrage.

Focus on benefit realisation not just impact mitigation

Too often, when we consider the impacts of infrastructure, we focus on the negative impacts and the need to mitigate them. This in turn focuses the community and stakeholders on everything that is ‘bad’ about the project. This social impact assessment also comes too late in the process as it usually occurs during the approval phases.

As the Building Queensland Business Case Development Framework rightly states, a social impact assessment tends to focus on post-design strategies to minimise potential issues. Whereas a social impact evaluation seeks to influence project design and enhance benefits.

The benefit realisation is an important part of the SIE as it is directly related to how communities and stakeholders relate to projects.

An SIE will seek to answer the questions: will it improve my daily life? Is it a good project for our community/city/region? What else can we do to make this project even better?

A good SIE will continue beyond the feasibility phase and ensure the conversations continue. This is where social licence can truly be realised.

Connect social value and social licence

We talk a lot about social licence – We’ve even heard a politician talk about whether there is social licence to land helicopters on beaches (recreational craft, not emergency rescue).

There are a lot of misguided conversations about social licence and how to achieve and measure it. Social licence is based on four factors – economic legitimacy, socio-political legitimacy, interactional trust and institutional trust.

A social impact evaluation can establish the foundation markers for social licence. Through an SIE, we can identify the economic and socio-political factors that give the project legitimacy in the eyes of the community and stakeholders.

We need to demonstrate that a project actually provides social value, and not just try to build it in through a series of impact mitigations. Only with a commitment to identifying and enhancing social value can we achieve social licence for our projects.

Social impact evaluation is the final business case

When it all boils down, if an infrastructure project does not deliver social value, we need to really question whether it is needed. The impact on communities dealing with construction and operational impacts is too great to ignore.

Our infrastructure needs to improve liveability, productivity and connectivity, and social impact evaluations hold the key to understanding how to achieve the transformative societal change we need.

Connect with Phillips Group

Here at Phillips Group, we use a variety of specialist research and communication techniques to source data and consumer insights, drive research participation and evaluate outcomes to help our clients truly understand their stakeholders.

Contact Group Executive Director Health and Care, Rebecca Williams to discuss how we can work with you to understand the impact and outcomes of your programs and services.