From the Board July with Tony Clark

Engagement – The Next Step

Community engagement has come a long way and has collected elements from other traditional areas such as community development, communications and policy development. Engagement has developed structure and has been applied across a broad range of projects to deliver very tangible benefits for the community, government and corporate sector.

We are now faced with the challenge of defining our profession to provide a whole of project benefit, a benefit that is not just a portion but encapsulates policy, service delivery and infrastructure design and construction. Community Engagement can provide this overarching lens to focus us all on what is important, our community.

New initiatives all start from a policy, the document which talks about aspirations and desired end goals. The best policies are those that engage stakeholders to share their learnings and how things really work at the coal face. From policy this is translated into service models to deliver end outcomes. The model will hold the principles and how services interface and connect. With this critical piece in place, service planning can then move forward to turn it to reality and provide the brief that shapes the infrastructure to fulfil the outcomes.

This long term lens requires a really broad range of skill sets which we compartmentalise into different branches, teams and individuals with a broad skill set. We place a great deal of value on the technical skill set and seem to forget the most important skill set, how a person will interface which is a highly complex thing. We have a sad tendency to focus on the physical thing, such as a building – got a news flash for you – the building is pointless without the people to use it. It is the human aspect that engagement delivers such immense value. Taking a leaf from Apple would not go astray.

In the infrastructure space, engagement is about value creation, improving the design for those who work to deliver the services, the experience of those using the facility for those who live around it and for broader community and related services. Whether it be a new hospital, school, road, train station or a sports centre, the use of the infrastructure for its purpose is only part of the equation. The surroundings whether they be recreational or retail is just as important and this is where the real value is added – the amenity. We can get caught up in mitigating the impact of the disruption during building and forget the longer game post construction.

For our industry to contribute and add this value it must continue its growth into legitimacy and credibility. We must professionalise what we do and work towards working with government and corporate to measure and set both guidelines and legislation, requiring engagement to be integrated into the policy, planning and delivery process. IAP2 is working towards this through recognised educational qualifications and the development of an advocacy plan.

We do however need leadership in government and executive management to recognise the value and develop the structure within the business to deliver this benefit. Engagement should work across all areas of the business providing expert advice and services to support the end outcome.

Engagement professionals are content experts in people and not the technical development and delivery of the policy, service or infrastructure. Having engagement practitioners working across these areas will require the adoption of a structure that will allow touch points and the natural evolution is engagement and strategic communications link together to broaden strategic communications from passive to active. Passive is pushing out a message, active is proactively seeking input on the return loop of your communication activity using channels like social media, forums, workshops, pop ups and various innovative means to capture input and attention.

As we grow and mature I look forward to the day when engagement can provide a recognised benefit that spans the whole project from policy to infrastructure.