Why is community engagement so important for infrastructure projects?
Infrastructure projects such as new buildings or new road works can cause stress, disruption, and even pain for families in the affected communities. If a family needs to relocate or adjust to heightened noise from passing traffic, for example, these projects can require them to sacrifice their normal way of life.
Everyone handles these challenges differently, and their psychological responses can help determine the community impact of an infrastructure project. Further, with the proper engagement practices, community leaders have a significant influence over the community response to a project. In other words, resistance and distress aren’t just addressable, they can sometimes be avoided altogether.
There are five response styles to community change, defined in a research framework by Leonard, McCrea and Walton (2016):
- Resisting – going against change, or aspects of the change
- Not coping – feeling vulnerable or lacking a sense of control over changes
- Only just coping – finding ways to tolerate and manage the change
- Adapting – taking a positive approach to accommodate these changes
- Transforming – welcoming the change to create something better than before
Their research found that the groups who were Adapting and Transforming in the face of community change had better community functioning, compared to groups with less adaptive coping styles. The community’s sense of agency — in other words, these stakeholders’ ability to help collectively determine the path to achieving shared goals — was found to be a critical factor that determined community functioning.
So it’s not just the project itself that affects a community’s response, but the ways project leaders engage meaningfully with the public. They can help make it a collaborative effort, instead of something that is forced on citizens without their input. This helps humanize local government.
This is why it’s essential to be proactive about community engagement with infrastructure projects. By soliciting community input, you can shape your project vision to be more responsive to local needs, while building support as citizens begin to take ownership of the outcome.
It’s easy to talk about the importance of good communication with the community, but of course this isn’t helpful until you have a more concrete idea of how to proceed.
What does good community engagement look like?
How do you engage a community in a project in a productive way? As a project leader, you have a responsibility to make the process as respectful and inclusive as possible for those involved — even those who oppose the changes entirely.
As general guidelines, you’ll want to practice careful planning, proactive communication, transparency, adaptability to all stakeholder needs, inclusion of the public, and taking accountability for the impact of the project. The worst thing you can do is make unilateral decisions based on what you think is best for a community.
Here are some tips to bear in mind when planning better public engagement, so you can ensure your infrastructure development is an asset to the neighborhood:
Learn about the community
Before defining a plan, make sure that you understand the neighborhoods involved – the local history, demographics, socioeconomics, culture, languages, and other relevant information. This will help you overcome potential challenges to engaging with them, and can help you customize your message for them.
This may also help you uncover opportunities to better address community needs and wishes.
One of the central themes of good community engagement is building trust, and the first step to building public trust is showing that you care enough to learn this information, and to help them with the things they actually want help with.
Communicate from day one
Involving the public from the beginning will help form lasting relationships, especially with community leaders. You need to build credibility and trust, develop supporters and champions, and accommodate the needs and wishes of stakeholders in decision-making.
It’s especially important to engage local community stakeholders when developing the vision for the project, to ensure everyone understands it. This is the first step to making sure they share and support your efforts. Communicate your goals, values, and overall vision for the project, and listen for ways that these align with those of the public.
Say you want to build a Zero Energy-Ready Building (ZEB) in a traditionally disadvantaged neighborhood. Early communication means you not only share timelines for construction that will affect the neighborhood, but you also explain how this building will provide them with a safe haven during severe storms or heatwaves.
These early conversations allow you to gather feedback and suggestions from community members who generally understand the neighborhood’s needs better than you do. The earlier you can implement desired changes, the more receptive people will be to the project.
Timeliness of notifications
Be respectful of the community (and their time) when it comes to your communications. If you’re planning a meeting to discuss the project, notify all stakeholders early enough that everyone can participate. Even if things don’t work out for them, this practice helps show that you respect them, which can go a long way to build trust.
Method of notifications
Adapt your messaging to the type of stakeholder, and to the process itself. This means that while a public advertisement might be fine for a broad audience to attend a public forum, you will want to use more direct, personalized messaging (like a phone call or email) for people who see themselves as more directly affected, such as landowners facing relocation.
Similarly, preferred communication channels might be different for younger versus older audiences, or between citizens with lower versus higher income levels.
Thankfully, online communication is becoming much more widespread, even in poor or rural communities.
Appropriateness of information
The only thing worse than an unwanted infrastructure project in your community is when you get surprised with unwelcome updates along the way. Manage expectations early, and communicate the full scope of the project to the public.
That means you should share the different options you’re considering, the timelines, any unknowns, and your decision-making process to handle all this. Confidential information may still exist, of course, but you can at least tell them it exists, and ideally explain how it might impact them.
Say the city is planning to replace piping and pumping infrastructure to accommodate flood risks, and this project will cause a lot of noise and inconvenience for the neighborhood. Rather than letting them find this out as it happens, be proactive and explain how this project might affect their commute, their plumbing, and any other issues that will likely arise.
Provide a means for public communication
If the main purpose of an engagement process is merely to keep the public informed, or to consult at a superficial level, is that engagement really meaningful? Communication shouldn’t be a one-way street, where you simply send out updates when it’s most convenient for you. Instead, provide (and promote) a publicly accessible communication center, such as an online portal, where community stakeholders can easily reach out about concerns.
Of course, you will get a range of messages, for and against the project. While you may be familiar with NIMBYs (“Not In My Backyard”), or opponents of public projects, there are also YIMBYs (“Yes In My Backyard”) who see the value of your ideas and want to help create something meaningful and beneficial in the community.
Engage with both of these parties respectfully, because their choice to be an active participant here means they’re devoting their limited time and energy to something that’s meaningful to them. They can both become major assets in your efforts.
Use technology to your advantage
There’s no single best process for effective community engagement on an infrastructure project, but you can make the process much easier if you’re smart about the tools you use. With the right community engagement software platform, you can overcome many of the communication challenges here, and make the project much easier to manage.
For example, with our 3Di Engage platform, local government leaders and project managers can easily send custom notifications to all relevant stakeholders in a project through a variety of communication channels. The platform automatically directs your messages to the people who need to hear them most, so you can cut through the endless notifications the community receives each day, making them more likely to hear you when it counts.
Further, 3Di Engage lets you provide an online portal for citizens, where they can educate themselves on their own timeline, or reach out with questions and concerns. This type of engagement gives project leaders a straightforward way to build trust with all stakeholders on a project, to make sure your infrastructure development empowers the community, rather than harming it.