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Tales from the Trenches with Paul Smitheram

Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Paul Smitheram, Senior Engagement Planning Adviser in the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources (DEWNR) in Adelaide, South Australia. I completed a business degree in Administrative Management at the University of South Australia and commenced in the public sector in 2007, where I have worked in various roles but having enjoyed working in the community engagement space over the last four years in both state and local government.

I am married and have a 19 month old boy and a little girl due any day now… so am about to have my hands completely full!

I am a bit sport mad and love the AFL where I am a member of the Port Adelaide Football Club and I also love my English premier league soccer where I support West Ham. I keep fit on the weekends by umpiring in the Adelaide Footy League.

Tell us a bit about your organisation.
In South Australia the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources (DEWNR) works in partnership with eight regional natural resources management (NRM) boards to help South Australians conserve, sustain and prosper. NRM boards are made up of community people with local knowledge, expertise and networks. These people understand their community’s needs and help government and communities work in partnership to manage our natural resources across both public and private land.
As an organisation DEWNR has incorporated the IAP2 Core Values and the South Australian government’s ‘Better Together: Principles of Engagement’ into its community engagement framework, policy and guidelines to integrate best practice community engagement practices into our projects.

What does your role involve?
My role is to provide support and advice across the department in relation to engagement planning and advice on policies, plans and initiatives. This involves capacity building and upskilling staff in engagement including delivering presentations and training to staff at all levels throughout the department.

What would be a typical day in your working life?
Meetings with project teams in the department that are at the planning stage of their project/s to ensure discussion around early engagement requirements.
Reviewing an engagement plan of a new policy position that is being developed and providing edits/comments/feedback.

Assisting with and reviewing project team’s online consultation project and assisting with survey development, liaising with members of the Strategic Engagement Unit in the Department of the Premier and Cabinet.
General capacity building of staff in the department – referring staff to templates available on the internal system ie: engagement strategy templates, technique suggestions, training – IAP2, Better Together and in-house DEWNR 101 community engagement training and promoting these through our Community Engagement network and internal weekly e-newsletter.

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?
An excellent experience I encountered in local council was being able to bring my engagement background on construction projects to a section of the council that had previously had limited conversations with engagement staff in the past. I was able to have some influence by creating relationships with Managers by having sit downs with them and getting to know them and asking how engagement could be improved, what their issues were from an engagement perspective and how I could help. I saw some wins from these encounters as this led to improved conversations with engineers and project teams on community engagement on construction projects.

This helped me to grow professionally by backing my skills and knowledge and making people aware of what I could bring to the table and how I could help.

And then there has been some times over my career where I have worked with a project team and their manager for the first time, they just want to put their plan/policy online because they have to, they see no benefit of engagement as they feel it will just slow them down, they are the experts, they will make the decision.

These situations above helped me grow professionally by being able to develop negotiation skills with managers around the engagement on their projects. Being able to sell the benefits, especially around risk management and reduction of ministerial correspondence.

I was able to share some of these insights on the bus tour day one of the IAP2 conference in Adelaide last year

What do you find is the most rewarding aspect of working in this field?
Probably the most rewarding aspect of working in this field is when you are able to influence decision making around engagement requirements. When you thought a project was just going down the tokenistic path, but because you have built a relationship with team you get a small win, they start to listen, they respond to comments online and see that people just want to be heard and have a say and that some comments really made them think a little differently and the process wasn’t as scary as first thought.

Those are the times you know you made a difference.

What do you see as the most challenging part of your role or working in engagement in general?
I think timeframes and resources will always limit organisations to undertake best practice engagement. Engagement often needs to be scaled back to the minimum based on these two issues.

What prompted you to enter engagement professionally?
I was initially in a communications role in the transport department in the South Australian government. There were some large scale projects happening at the time, so I was pretty keen to get involved and do some different work in the department, so I basically landed in an engagement role based on the need for engagement staff.

What are the three biggest professional or personal lessons that you have learnt from working on this field?
1. Relationship building with both internal and external stakeholders is key. You will only be able to influence managers’ decision making around engagement requirements if they know who you are and how you can help to improve the outcome of their project/s.
2. Back yourself when you feel a project might be going pear shaped because you think it is lacking good engagement design, communicate to the decision makers why they should take your advice on board. Back yourself, but give evidence by providing examples!
3. Being really specific on what you are engaging on. I have come across engagement projects that aren’t clear on what exactly they are engaging on. It is ok to be really clear about what is up for negotiation and what isn’t. Therefore ensure your engagement is based on what you want to learn and what can possibly change as a result of the feedback.

What advice would you give newbies entering engagement?
Build relationships with internal and external stakeholders – make it your focus.
Sell the benefits of engagement to staff and managers, give good examples where engagement resulted in a positive outcome and give examples of where bad engagement led to cost blowouts/community backlash so that staff and managers understand this.

Always close the loop with the community, I am still waiting for my local council to close the loop on a proposal they sent to me via mail which I completed and sent back over 12 months ago now. Closing the loop is my number one engagement priority.