Constructing better infrastructure outcomes with community engagement

Infrastructure has the power to change communities. It can change the way they move around their city and state, how they receive their energy and the overall look and feel of a city. However, the massive impact of infrastructure development has the potential to negatively affect communities as well. Further, any unexpected impact can come off as negative to the community. That is why it is so important to prioritise community engagement in major infrastructure projects. 

Engaging in all stages   

Concerns about traffic disruptions all the way to concerns about the safety of water and crops need to be informed, addressed, and considered in every infrastructure project. This applies across all stages of the project. 

The stages of a project lifecycle are long, complex and require extensive planning and preparation. Centring genuine community engagement into the core of a project from the very beginning is essential to the successful delivery.  Infrastructure projects can create long-lasting sustainable and social outcomes for the communities and the industries we operate in with this consideration. 

Not all projects come with a tick of approval, positive community sentiment and minimal impacts. When it comes to significant infrastructure, most projects can be challenging to navigate.

Local communities experience significant changes and interruptions to their day-to-day lives, their homes, and their land due to exposure to the cumulative construction impacts that come alongside infrastructure projects. These impacts include dust, noise, and vibration, just to name a few. Projects from bridges, energy sites, roads and housing all carry these effects.

Providing meaningful and effective community engagement throughout each of the stages can: 

  • establish a sense of connection with stakeholders 
  • provide a platform for voices to be heard  
  • be the source of truth 

as projects progress throughout their life cycles to operation. 

Effective community engagement for infrastructure projects 

Effective and genuine community engagement is going beyond a ‘tick the box’ contractual requirement. It is about going the extra mile, building meaningful relationships with your community, and prioritising their values.  

To do our due diligence is to understand the community we are operating in, conduct the research and gain the knowledge on the locality and the demographics. It’s key intel that’s critical to inform and shape the most effective approach. 

If your consultation is built around an idea the community strongly opposes, it is going to be difficult to collaborate further. 

A collaborative approach to planning and delivering infrastructure will recognise engagement as the front door to delivering genuine place-based outcomes for the community. This approach will proactively ensure we understand community needs and aspirations, now and in the future.

Thorough research about the needs and wants of the community should start before consultation takes place. That way you are involving the community in the process before breaking ground. The more accurate your understanding of wants and needs, the fewer surprises you will have during consolations. Surprises could land you on the front page of newspapers. This happened to Santos at the beginning of this year.

What can we learn from Santos v Tipakalippa 

“Public participation is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.” –IAP2 Core Values  

In December of 2022, energy company, Santos, lost a landmark Federal Court Case Santos NA Barossa Pty Ltd v Tipakalippa. The case solidified and provided authoritative clarification of the importance of community engagement.

Not only is public participation rooted in theory, such as IAP2’s Core Values, it is a legal requirement for many infrastructure projects.  

The nature of Santos’ offshore drilling projects impacts on many different communities. Santos failed to fully address this, and their lack of community consultation resulted in a Federal Court loss. The Barossa gas project, off the Tiwi Islands, was found to have not informed or consulted the relevant parties to the extent required by law. 

Not only do companies have a moral obligation to consultation, but there is also a legal right for relevant people to be given “sufficient information to allow [them]… to make an informed assessment of the possible consequences” of the proposed activity on their “functions, interests or activities.” They must also be truthful in these consequences and take appropriate action in response to the relevant peoples’ concerns.  

Santos is now running a second round of consultation with relevant stakeholders, including Tiwi Islanders. But, there is little trust after Santos failed to meet requirements the first time. 

As a result of the case, major infrastructure projects, especially those with a large impact on the environment, now have a clearer set of guidelines on how to consult their stakeholders. Following the decision, NOPSEMA released its Consultation in the course of preparing an environment plan. The plan offers recommendations on how to identify relevant people, reporting and what sufficient information involves, as well as further clarification of legal requirements. 

Social Licence 

Informally known as the ongoing approval and acceptance of a project within the community. However, for us, it’s:

  • the ability to tap into our communities
  • an opportunity to identify their needs and aspirations
  • establish benefits and social outcomes

This effectively provide demonstrable and tangible benefits, while leaving a lasting legacy, to both:

  • the local community and community groups during construction 
  • the broader local community beyond construction and operation

It understands the importance of community buy-in. People are the experts in their own lives. That lived experience should play a key role in informing the work that we do and projects we deliver. The Santos case proved the importance of community engagement before an infrastructure projects start, but that is just the beginning. Maintaining a relationship throughout the entire infrastructure project and for years after is just as critical.  

As the project grows and changes, these changes need to be communicated to preserve the foundation gained in the beginning of the project. During construction can often be the most contentious time of a project. This is because the community will see the most disruptions in this phase. Constant reminders of the outcome will help mitigate the complaints.  

Post-construction, collaboration with the community who is using the infrastructure can improve the functionality of the final product. The people using the infrastructure are going to now be experts in the small details of how it affects their day-to-day lives. We can use these insights to improve future projects of the same nature, and plan for what the next infrastructure improvements in the area should be.  

Infrastructure is at the centre of everyone’s life, so everyone should be involved in the process. Consultation from the planning stage all the way through to beyond construction allows the best decisions to be made and keeps the community informed. Ultimately, the infrastructure is for the benefit of the community, so they need to be at the centre of each step.  

Written by Arden Lunay
Arden has a passion for combining creative communication skills with social justice knowledge to create change. She is bringing a fresh outlook to the industry and excited to share her ideas.