Image courtesy of flickr user Speak Your Mind

Future of project engagement

The engagement with the local community is arguably the most important part of project development. Sadly, too often it is simply viewed as ‘something that has to be done’. At the same time, community expectations are rising. So what does this mean for the future of project engagement?

We should start by making an admission. There will never be a scheme that doesn’t face some level of opposition or challenge. The idea that a project can simply be presented or ‘sold’ to a community, politicians or officials, is simply wrong. The same is true of policies as well.

Consultation has risen in importance over at least the past decade. Whether it is a controversial policy or project, one that elicits a range of views, one that might be challenged, or one that people want more information about, consultation is a default position. Whether that is because politicians are looking for a way to avoid making difficult decisions or whether they think that by listening they can avoid legal challenges can be debated….

But most importantly, I believe, is the rising level of expectations. Even where there is not a legal requirement to consult, people expect to be involved. Even without a clear legal requirement, which is rare these days, what is without question is that policies or projects with wide ranging implications or effects will be the subject of consultation.

The rising levels of expectations haven’t been met with the practice in reality. When it comes to projects, it remains the case that consultation is often seen as simply part of the ‘selling’ process rather than as an opportunity to stress test proposals and genuinely seek views. This is consultation as PR. But consultation should be so much more than that.

What does this mean for the future of project engagement?

  1. Communications at the heart of the project, not just the PR – information gathered during a consultation can improve the project. Even the best project team does not always have the valuable local insight at its fingertips. This comes through consultation.
  2. Not just the minimum – there will be a certain amount of engagement that is required depending on the planning process being followed – Town and Country Planning, Development Consent Order, Transport and Works Act Order etc. But community expectations always rise rather than fall. This means that projects should look to constantly improve on previous engagement. That need not mean more rounds of consultation or more money spent but could be about more effective targeting or working with some groups more closely over time.
  3. What the project requires – the consultation should also be built around the needs of local communities taking into account issues such as the history and background to a project. The project teams themselves need to be able to collaborate with the success of the project in mind. Sadly, it sometimes remains the case that some advisers fixate on their own positions and protecting them rather than the needs of the project.
  4. Online and offline working together – the channels of communications are often viewed separately, with each having their own strategy. Instead, they should be part of a coherent and single whole project approach. This is increasingly the case because audiences do not view them separately. They may want to look at a ‘behind the scenes’ on You Tube, read the written documents on the website and tweet comments or questions directly to the project team.
  5. Always think local – not just in terms of communities but officers as well. Whatever your route to get permission for the project you will have local plans and policies to work with, officers to liaise with, politicians to get on board and businesses to work with as well (for instance through Local Enterprise Partnerships). DCOs may be particularly good for getting agreement between local authorities for the project consultation but that in itself require a lot of effort and engagement. The more a project team can demonstrate that the consultation is serious and deeply embedded, the more likely the chances of getting an agreement between the parties.

Our approach is to work for the benefit of the project as a whole. That brings with it a mind-set that tries to think across the project disciplines. In the case of consultation, that means that all parts of the team can benefit from the information gathered during consultation so the project as a whole can benefit and, in turn, the local community.

Project communications are more than PR.

Image courtesy of flickr user Speak Your Mind

Related Content

Image courtesy of wikimedia
Beware political engagement
Image courtesy of flickr user Martin Abegglen
Public affairs disasters and how to avoid them
Image courtesy of flickr user Number 10
The reality of the political spotlight
Image courtesy of pexels
Where does thought leadership come from?

Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist with BDB Pitmans advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has advised on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including ‘New Activism and the Corporate Response‘ (heralded as a book that “every aspiring business leader should read” by MIS Asia), ‘Public Affairs in Practice’ and ‘The Dictionary of Labour Quotations‘. His most recently published book, ‘Public Affairs: A Global Perspective’ has been called ‘an absolute treasure-trove’ and is a recommended read by the Government Communication Service (GCS). Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues and as well as blogging for BDB Pitmans he contributes to the Huffington Post and has written for the CBI, (former) UKTI, Total Politics and LabourList. He is also an adviser to the Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) and a regular speaker and chair at conferences. He has appeared on Sky News, BBC 5 Live, BBC World, the Today programme and on Ukrainian TV and has been a judge for the Public Affairs News, PR Week, Public Affairs and the European Public Affairs awards. Stuart is a CIPR trainer leading the 'Practical Public Affairs' course.

Leave a Reply