Tales from the Trenches with Mark Ritch

Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m a communications and engagement manager for Development Victoria. I look after the community engagement requirements for our project delivery divisions. I’ve spent about ten years in the Victorian state and local government sector including earth resources regulation, community planning and project management. Prior to coming to Australia, I worked in community development roles in Scotland.

Tell us a bit about your organisation.
We’re a fairly new organisation; we’re Victorian Government’s civic projects and property development agency. We deliver a range of projects from large sports and arts precincts to mixed use and housing developments on surplus government land.

What does your role involve?
A little bit of everything – I work with our delivery teams planning and delivering the community engagement activities that are part of our project development process. These range from small housing developments to large civic precinct developments.

What would be a typical day in your working life?
Our team may be working across 20 projects at any given time. Most are at different stages so in a single day we can be planning, delivering and evaluating different pieces of work. We work with a range of stakeholders in the run up to an engagement so we spend a lot of time with project partners, local government and contractors in working up an engagement process.

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?
It depends what you mean by good and bad. I’ve had some confronting experiences working with community renewal projects in Scotland, coal seam gas in Gippsland and public housing renewal in Melbourne. All of these have involved working with distressed, outraged or outright hostile stakeholders.

It might sound perverse but these are also some of the best experiences. Working with communities is about making a difference. I’ve had ‘easy’ projects where there’s been little or no outrage or anger but there’s less to be learned from those.
As to how that’s helped me develop as an engagement professional? Hard to say. I didn’t take notes as I went along but I’m more confident about what I do than I used to be.

If you are working on a project at the moment would you like to share the journey to date?
I can probably group some of the projects I’m working on just now. We’ve got about three projects that will deliver infill developments in residential neighbourhoods. They’re all apartment style developments in areas that generally feature detached houses, so the increase in density is challenging for existing residents. We’ve spent time in each, starting in most cases, from a blank sheet and gathering the community’s views on what they value before commencing planning. We’ve gone back to the community with draft masterplans in two out of the three and we’re about to commence another.

What principles did you find most useful in carrying out this project?
Transparency. Where we have very low negotiables, it’s important to be very clear about the decision-making process and why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Did you come across any surprises on this project?
‘Surprised’ – is probably overstating it, but some of the diversity in community responses was interesting. Someone’s always got an angle you hadn’t thought of.
What do you find is the most rewarding aspect of working in this field?
I know I’m supposed to say ‘making a difference to people’s lives’ but what I actually find most interesting is the variety. There aren’t too many other jobs that let you work in mining one day, housing the next and transport the day after.

What do you see as the most challenging part of your role or working in engagement in general?
That relates to the answer above – getting your head around the various technical disciplines that we work with. To establish credibility with technical specialists, we need to speak their language and understand their culture every bit as much as we do when we work with communities.

What prompted you to enter engagement professionally?
I came to engagement from a community development background which I got into because of a belief in social justice. Community development requires a strong orientation to engagement and it was always the aspect that interested me most. That’s still pretty much what gets me through the night.

What are the three biggest professional or personal lessons that you have learnt from working in this field?
1. Everybody who wants you to undertake an engagement project has generally allocated half the time and one third of the budget you’re going to need.
2. You’re going to have to do it anyway
3. You might as well get used to it.

What advice would you give newbies entering engagement?
Don’t be a stranger. If you’re faced with something you haven’t done before, there will be someone out there who has, so get involved, join networks and groups or just come and talk to us.