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Integrating engagement and Social Impact Assessments (SIAs)

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By Julie Boucher and Rachel Maas

Sioux Campbell’s thought piece in the last Engagement Matters about ‘community’ had me nodding my head and reading about her background in social impact assessment, I knew why.

As engagement professionals we all understand the value in engaging early in the life of a new ‘thing’ be it a programme, policy, project or something else, to ensure the people who will live with the outcome have had a chance to contribute to vision and goal setting, development, as well as the final design.

However, it is too often still the case that in the strategic or ‘set-up’ phases of a ‘thing’ that the ‘community’ or ‘communities’ are defined based on desktop social, demographic or cultural research as part of a technical planning assessments. The ‘engagement’ team is often brought in later in the project lifecycle after core strategic decisions are made. The social impact practitioner might not be brought in until even later still once potentially significant project decisions have been made. This results in significant project decisions being made in isolation of the people who they are being made for (the community) and without understanding who the community are.

Imagine if everyone involved in the planning, development, delivery, operation and upgrading of public infrastructure put people first?

Public infrastructure is designed, built, maintained and upgraded for the public, for us. Roads, for example, are built so we can access schools, hospitals and jobs which allows the economy to grow which creates jobs, so we can pay the taxes to build the schools, hospitals and roads and so the cycle continues to support our growing populations.

Some of the work we have been doing within our team recently is undertaking a “participatory” Preliminary or Scoping Social Impact Assessment (SIA) process during the early planning stages of projects.  Tag-teaming with the planners and engagement specialists to engage with key impacted groups and community members, is helping provide information and insights to both the project team and the community. We are developing working relationships based on mutual learning and understanding, and the insights gained can be integrated earlier, adding significant value.

We are also adopting a SIA approach to project planning and development which puts the public into public infrastructure planning. Within a SIA approach conflicts can be minimised, and when conflict does occur (which it often does), the discussion to potentially resolve it can be utilised for better project decision making. Because conflict in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

It’s about taking a holistic approach, public infrastructure supporting the public rather than the public having to adjust or adapt to ill-planned infrastructure because technical experts said it was the best solution to the problem or issue – acknowledging of course that not all infrastructure is ‘ill-planned’. By increasing understanding about the people who could be impacted, information can be better communicated and through engagement, the level of uncertainty they would otherwise experience can be reduced.

Rather than adding costs to a project, “participatory” Preliminary or Scoping Social Impact Assessment (SIA) process is creating efficiencies and reducing double-ups of activity by scheduling and integrating the SIA’s focus groups, workshops or events into a wider ongoing engagement programme. It provides a structure to identify potential impacts together early in the project development process and collaboratively develop appropriate management strategies so they become part of the project rather than a point of negotiation as part of the regulatory approval process. It has also helped build trust of the engagement team as a ‘single point of contact’, and reduced the burden of participation or consultation fatigue on stakeholders, by managing and coordinating different information requests and the different inputs into planning or regulatory processes.

Participatory Preliminary or Scoping SIAs are becoming increasingly commonplace in the early planning phases of significant projects in Australia, with many supported by SIA Guidelines at a State level. The practice is also growing in New Zealand, where the Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency’s Whangarei to Te Hana project has trail-blazed this approach.

The Whangarei to Te Hana experience

In 2017, the Transport Agency began investigating options to provide a safer, more reliable and resilient, approximately 75km section of State Highway 1 between Whangarei and Te Hana, north of Auckland. There were multiple options for different sections of the project, across an area with numerous small townships and rural communities. With population and traffic growth expected from increasing tourism and port activity, local communities were simultaneously wary of change and growth, while also highly motivated to see action undertaken to address their serious safety concerns.

The project team knew that the options being considered, regardless of where the final alignment might eventually be located, would impact many people, either directly or indirectly. To deepen the insights that would be gained from what would usually have been a desktop Preliminary SIA, we undertook a “participatory” Preliminary SIA, working collaboratively with the project’s ongoing community and stakeholder engagement programme, together delivering an integrated engagement strategy.

The integrated engagement strategy included local community information ‘drop-in’ sessions run by the engagement team. Our SIA specialist participated in these sessions where we were able to meet and chat with locals, developing an understanding of how they, their family and friends, live, work and play in the areas and how this may change depending on the various project options.

Facilitated focus groups with resident and ratepayer associations from areas that were likely to be impacted by the project options helped develop a social baseline and identify potential social impacts. The focus groups, which included a fair bit of drawing, scribbling, and writing on maps aimed to develop a social baseline and identify potential social impacts.

This integrated approach added value to the project, and also to communities and individuals that participated in the process. Feedback from participants was very positive, being especially appreciative to have someone from the project that was objective and focussed on understanding them. Information and insights from the integrated engagement was used to:

  • Develop management strategies for social impacts occurring during the planning stage of the Programme (often overlooked; normally social management strategies focus on the construction stages of a Programme)
  • Inform a multi-criteria analysis process used to short list options
  • Inform preliminary design aspects
  • Support the RMA decision making process when application for project consents will be required
  • Contribute to achieving both programme and project objectives along with broader Transport Agency environmental and social responsibility objectives.

Integrating the wider engagement programme and a participatory Preliminary SIA process had great benefits for both the project and the community” says Kelli Sullivan, the Transport Agency’s Communications & Engagement Lead. “People who participated in discussions at the community information sessions and the focus groups said they felt like they were making more of a contribution to the project decision making. People wanted to speak with our project team to understand the project options, but they also wanted to speak with someone who was providing an objective assessment of the project,” Kelli says. “They wanted to have their concerns and aspirations understood and reflected in the Public and Stakeholder Engagement Report, and to have input into and learn how they and other people would be impacted in the more technical Preliminary SIA.”

Further development of parts of the project is about to recommence as part of the New Zealand Government’s New Zealand Upgrade Programme announced on 29 January 2020

https://www.nzta.govt.nz/nzupgrade/northland-package/sh1-whangarei-to-port-marsden/. We’re looking forward to seeing the integrated and participatory approach continue as the project progresses.