The term “community engagement” is frequently thrown around when it comes to communication activities in the property, infrastructure, service delivery and policy sectors.
But what is it really? Is there a “right way” and “wrong way”? And why bother if you’re just going to build it anyway?
According to the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2), “engagement is a planned process with the specific purpose of working across organisations, stakeholders and communities to shape the decisions or actions of the members of the community, stakeholders or organisation in relation to a problem, opportunity or outcome”.
It’s based on the principle that stakeholders should have a say in things that impact them, and when done well, engagement can result in better project outcomes for everyone.
Conversely, inadequate or no engagement can lead to irreparable damage to both projects and reputations.
Here are three reasons why community engagement should form an important part of project planning from the outset.
It can help you define the problems – and find better solutions
Effective stakeholder engagement allows for better planned, more informed projects. The community can often provide perspective and insight into issues and objectives not considered by the project owner. Further, the community can often highlight issues you wouldn’t otherwise be aware existed.
Identifying and accurately defining issues early can save considerable time and cost spent on rework and issues management. The community’s input can also mean more effective solutions and decisions. Drawing on local knowledge can help generate solutions that are practical, relevant and even more cost effective.
It can dramatically increase community understanding and acceptance
Generating community ownership, or at least, appreciation of the rationale for a particular decision is another reason why community engagement is essential.
People generally don’t like things they don’t understand and if you aren’t telling them about what is happening, someone else will… but often with incorrect information. Involving the community in the decision making process creates understanding and can even foster a sense of ownership.
An extensive community engagement process also means stakeholders build an in-depth understanding of issues. This knowledge allows them to see multiple sides of the problem. The deeper the involvement, the more likely it is that your stakeholders will understand the reasons for the final decision, even if they don’t necessarily agree with it.
It builds credibility and trust
Honest and open communication builds trust and credibility with your stakeholders. Credibility and trust are invaluable as they give the project owner a social licence to operate. For those who plan on continuing to work in the industry, this positive reputation is vital as communities and stakeholders talk to each other, regardless of geographic distance. Losing a community’s goodwill on one project may well mean other stakeholders will close the door on you during future projects.