The engagement with the local community is arguably the most important part of project development. Sadly, too often it is simply viewed as ‘something that has to be done’. At the same time, community expectations are rising. So what does this mean for the future of project engagement? We should start by making an admission. There will never be a scheme that doesn’t face some level of opposition or challenge. The idea that a project can simply be presented or ‘sold’ to a community, politicians or officials, is simply wrong. The same is true of policies as well.
Consultation has risen in importance over at least the past decade. Whether it is a controversial policy or project, one that elicits a range of views, one that might be challenged, or one that people want more information about, consultation is a default position. Whether that is because politicians are looking for a way to avoid making difficult decisions or whether they think that by listening they can avoid legal challenges can be debated….
But most importantly, I believe, is the rising level of expectations. Even where there is not a legal requirement to consult, people expect to be involved. Even without a clear legal requirement, which is rare these days, what is without question is that policies or projects with wide ranging implications or effects will be the subject of consultation.
The rising levels of expectations haven’t been met with the practice in reality. When it comes to projects, it remains the case that consultation is often seen as simply part of the ‘selling’ process rather than as an opportunity to stress test proposals and genuinely seek views. This is consultation as PR. But consultation should be so much more than that.
What does this mean for the future of project engagement?
- Communications at the heart of the project, not just the PR – information gathered during a consultation can improve the project. Even the best project team does not always have the valuable local insight at its fingertips. This comes through consultation.
- Not just the minimum – there will be a certain amount of engagement that is required depending on the planning process being followed – Town and Country Planning, Development Consent Order, Transport and Works Act Order etc. But community expectations always rise rather than fall. This means that projects should look to constantly improve on previous engagement. That need not mean more rounds of consultation or more money spent but could be about more effective targeting or working with some groups more closely over time.
- What the project requires – the consultation should also be built around the needs of local communities taking into account issues such as the history and background to a project. The project teams themselves need to be able to collaborate with the success of the project in mind. Sadly, it sometimes remains the case that some advisers fixate on their own positions and protecting them rather than the needs of the project.
- Online and offline working together – the channels of communications are often viewed separately, with each having their own strategy. Instead, they should be part of a coherent and single whole project approach. This is increasingly the case because audiences do not view them separately. They may want to look at a ‘behind the scenes’ on You Tube, read the written documents on the website and tweet comments or questions directly to the project team.
- Always think local – not just in terms of communities but officers as well. Whatever your route to get permission for the project you will have local plans and policies to work with, officers to liaise with, politicians to get on board and businesses to work with as well (for instance through Local Enterprise Partnerships). DCOs may be particularly good for getting agreement between local authorities for the project consultation but that in itself require a lot of effort and engagement. The more a project team can demonstrate that the consultation is serious and deeply embedded, the more likely the chances of getting an agreement between the parties.
My approach is to work for the benefit of the project as a whole. That brings with it a mind-set that tries to think across the project disciplines. In the case of consultation, that means that all parts of the team can benefit from the information gathered during consultation so the project as a whole can benefit and, in turn, the local community.
Project communications are more than PR.