Tales from the Trenches with Margie Harvie

Tell us a bit about yourself.
Born in Adelaide, live in Sydney, have lived and worked in Brisbane, New York and Tokyo. I have a world view and passion for social justice.

Tell us a bit about your organisation.
We are PlanCom Consulting – my husband is a planner – he is PLAN and no prizes for guessing who is COM. We both spent a lot of time in our careers in organisations managing others. Our business model when we started 10 years ago was/is (1) No staff … but we do have Alicia Hatton who has been with us from the beginning – more a member of the family! (2) Working with good clients – owning a business without a team to support means that there is the ability to say NO and this is liberating.

What does your role involve?
First and foremost, I am a practitioner – I get involved in the range of community engagement tasks from door knocks, to writing communication, to facilitating.

Secondly, I am a trainer of others, bringing what I learn as a practitioner into the training.

Thirdly, I am an advisor – doing review/ evaluations for projects, chairing consultative committees, presenting community risks to wary proponents.

What would be a typical day in your working life?
The joy and motivation of working for yourself is that a typical day can be what you make it but one job I currently enjoy is chairing the Community Consultative Committee for the Grafton Correctional Centre. Some of my days are spent sitting at a desk writing policy, plans and guides and others on the ground either training or developing and delivering community engagement programs.

Can you share some of the good and bad experiences you have encountered over your career and how they have helped you grow as an engagement professional and person?
The Good: I am humbled by the trust the community has given me. Trust from people dramatically affected by developments, trust from people who have been treated badly and are angry.

The Bad: Having to read yet another excuse for not doing engagement – my current ‘favourite’ being “what about all the additional time and cost?” – my answer – let’s talk about a time when not doing engagement has saved you time and money and led to better outcomes?

If you are working on a project at the moment would you like to share the journey to date?
I assist a team in the Department of Planning and Environment developing guidelines for Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in NSW. I have led the engagement for this project and am helping to develop guidelines for community engagement for proponents seeking State government approval for their projects. Moving from no guidance to guidance for community engagement is welcomed by some and dreaded by others. The challenge has been to create ‘requirements’ for engagement without falling into the trap of specifying techniques and creating a “ticking the box” exercise.

Did you come across any surprises on this project?
Leading the engagement process for the consultations on the draft guidelines allowed me to work with the team to teach the nuances of planning and facilitating engagement. It is difficult to invite comment on documents you have spent 6 months writing and already have been subject to internal and government agency scrutiny. I gave the team rules like ‘don’t be defensive’ and they had opportunity to pull me up on not living by my own rules!

What do you find is the most rewarding aspect of working in this field?
I think that I have almost worked out how to convince decision makers /internal people about the need for engagement. As I have struggled with this it is rewarding to feel I have some skills in doing this.

What do you see as the most challenging part of your role or working in engagement in general?
• the public thinks that we are on the side of the proponent,
• management/ proponents thinks we are on the side of the public,
• the rest of the team thinks community engagement looks easy and offer well meaning opinions – do I tell them how they should design and construct the sewer? Do I suggest environmental mitigation measures? Do I re-interpret planning and environment legislation planning for them?

What prompted you to enter engagement professionally?
I was the “community engagement” resource for a project called the Multi Function Polis (MFP) in Adelaide in 1989, the inverted commas being because that this was not the job title but this was the task for this publicly controversial project. I did a range of jobs in the mid 1990s and in 1998 became the first SKM (now Jacobs) employee in community engagement.

What are the three biggest professional or personal lessons that you have learnt from working on this field?
1. Look at the situation from the community members’ perspectives and support their perspectives as required
2. Facts will not be enough to convince people of a really great idea
3. A good process without attention to taking on community ideas will not be enough

What advice would you give newbies entering engagement?
Challenge yourself – put yourself in new situations where you don’t have all the answers, admit that you don’t have all the answers – get 10 years of knowledge and skills – don’t fall into the trap of getting one year of experience and replicating that same experience 10 times.