Seven building blocks for authentic engagement

Infrastructure projects are destined to remain in the backyards of many Queensland communities in coming years. 

As the size and value of projects is set to grow, the need for effective and authentic engagement is greater than ever to ensure a better outcome is achieved for all involved.

Being ‘authentic’ is an engagement term that is thrown around casually. However, authenticity is the lynchpin of effective engagement and can go a long way to support a project’s objectives and protect its long-term reputation.

The following are some of the building blocks projects must lay down early to ensure that their engagement throughout a project is authentic, otherwise they run the risk of being called out by communities.

  1. Front-up

Build a strong physical presence in the community in which a project is operating. It is very difficult to develop trust and ‘authenticity’ through the veil of a computer.  Find the right balance between off and online activity, based on community needs and expectations.  And if you aren’t sure, ask the question.

  1. Understand the community

This goes beyond knowing the community’s geographical makeup or completing preliminary desktop research. It demands an understanding about what makes the community tick, how it prefers to communicate and what influences and informs their decision-making processes.

  1. Appreciate the impacts

When project teams pack-up, communities live on with the legacy of major projects.  Projects often focus on the short and medium-term impacts through the construction phase of a project.  And while these impacts are often significant, projects must think ahead and appreciate the lasting impact on the community, long after the ribbon-cutting ceremony. And getting it wrong may not only impact the long-term perception of a project, but the reputation of those organisations responsible for delivering it.

  1. Establish strategies for dialogue

Done well, engagement establishes mutually beneficial relationships.  In addition to employing proactive strategies for communicating with the community, projects must have agreed mechanisms in place to allow for and track meaningful two-way dialogue with the community.  This includes complaint and conflict resolution mechanisms that are honest, transparent and accessible.  Establishing trust early in the project is essential to developing productive working relationships.

  1. Anticipate concerns

Project resources can be absorbed rapidly in responding to common and predictable community issues.  A comprehensive issues analysis in advance of mobilisation can inform project teams about the most likely areas for concern.  This enables operational and communication mitigations to be put in place ahead of project commencement, reducing the time and resources used to ‘fight fires’ during construction.  This allows more time to focus on building and maintaining positive relationships during the project.  It also reduces the risk of interruptions to project timelines and meeting operational deadlines.

  1. Respond to needs

Projects that work with communities and are respectful of, and responsive to their needs, have a far greater chance of success than those that react and troubleshoot their way to the finish line.   It is critical for projects to understand that responding is about being considered and identifying the best course of action. Reacting on the other hand can often come across as aggressive or ‘tone-deaf’. Proactive issue identification and management along with active listening and monitoring across multiple channels and platforms such as community conversations, media and social media allows for a more ‘responsive’ and less ‘knee-jerk’ approach.

  1. Ensure understanding

It is the project’s responsibility to ensure that the community understands the project and not the other way around.  Have a clear narrative from the outset that explains the need for the project and highlight the benefits for the community, be clear about the project limitations and deliver on any commitments made. Consider ways to enhance a community’s understanding of a project’s narrative. Understand your audience, their needs and expectations. Ask yourself can technology or digital tools be used to more clearly articulate the project.  Finally, don’t assume people understand your project just because you have issued fact sheets and held community sessions. Develop appropriate ways to measure and evaluate how effective your strategy and efforts have been and be nimble enough to revise your approach.

By June Reynolds, Senior Consultant