How public involvement can benefit your sustainable infrastructure project

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Allison Hendricks

3 July 2019

General Stakeholder Management

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How public involvement can benefit your sustainable infrastructure project

If you’re running a sustainable infrastructure project, public involvement can have a huge impact on your project’s success.

So let’s take a closer look at public involvement, why it’s so beneficial and some strategies to help you boost public involvement in your project or organisation. But first, let’s start with a definition.

What is public involvement?

Public involvement includes any activities or strategies geared at getting input and participation from citizens.

The goal of public involvement is to ensure that people who are affected by or interested in a project or initiative have plenty of opportunities to be informed, communicate their opinions, affect decision-making and shape outcomes.

A lot of the time, public involvement is used in government contexts – like policy making and voting. But in this article, we’ll look specifically at public involvement in organisations that are planning or developing sustainable infrastructure.

Principles of public involvement

What does public involvement look like on a practical level? To boost public involvement, organisations can follow four key principles:

1. Sharing information
Provide information from the early planning stages, communicate planning goals and communicate opportunities for involvement.

2. Facilitating conversations
Provide opportunities for the public to respond to all the communication and information you share, encourage dialogue and demonstrate with active feedback that comments and concerns are heard.

3. Genuine involvement
Learn from the public’s involvement, adapt your approach, increase relevance and continually work towards greater diversity.

4. Follow up
Demonstrate how public involvement has impacted your project, set goals for continued involvement and provide clear conflict resolution processes.

What do we mean by sustainable infrastructure projects?

Before we go too deep here, it’s important to get clear on what we mean by sustainable infrastructure.

Infrastructure is essential for communities – both to keep up with the rate of development and effectively maintain current resources. For example, most communities need to continually build and upgrade roads, connect developments to water and waste management systems and ensure there’s sufficient energy generated to meet demand.

But a lot of infrastructure development focuses on creating the biggest impact for the smallest cost, rather than looking at the long and short-term impacts on the environment and social systems. In other words, sustainability is usually very low on the list of priorities.

A sustainable approach means that throughout the project – from planning and design to building and ongoing operation – steps are taken to minimize the negative impact on natural systems. It’s important to note that sustainability also goes beyond “green” infrastructure. Sustainable infrastructure also considers the social and economic impacts of the project. That means looking into potential risks and outcomes, ensuring the finished infrastructure is set up to meet the needs of the community for many years to come.

Here are some examples of infrastructure types that nearly always put a strong focus on sustainability from planning through to operation:

  • Solar energy farms
  • Wind farms
  • Public transport networks
  • Wildlife corridors
  • Energy efficient buildings
  • Water recycling plants
  • Self-healing roads or pathways

But as we already mentioned, any infrastructure project can take a more sustainable approach, not just the eco/green infrastructure project examples listed above.

So, what does sustainable infrastructure have to do with public involvement? As it turns out, quite a lot.

Why sustainable projects need public involvement

Sustainability and public involvement go hand in hand. Here’s why:

  • You can’t create something that sustains the needs of the community for years to come without properly understanding what those needs are
    To understand a community’s needs, you need to talk to them and ideally, get them involved
  • The public need to help you define what “sustainable” is and isn’t – not a dictionary and certainly not this article, because there’s no universal definition for sustainability
  • Best practices can only get you so far – what’s sustainable for one environment and community group won’t be sustainable for another
  • Many people groups have an in-depth knowledge of local natural and social environments – they can provide the most accurate insights and advice on the project’s impacts so you can adjust your plans as needed

So really, public involvement is essential if you want a genuinely sustainable approach to your infrastructure project. Plus, it’s worth mentioning a nice side effect, public involvement will sometimes help increase support for your project, which can improve the chances of getting your plans approved and implemented.

Public involvement strategies and techniques

So, how do you increase public involvement?

The best place to start is to make a plan so you can confidently choose the right strategies to achieve your objectives. Here’s how to structure your plan to boost public involvement:

Goals
What outcomes do you want to achieve from the public involvement process? What are some ways you’d like to see the public getting involved? What would you need to see to know you’ve been successful? What’s your timeline for your infrastructure project and how will your public involvement activities align with each project phase?

Stakeholder landscape
What local groups need to be informed and involved? What parties are interested or affected by your infrastructure project? How can you ensure you include all affected members – including people with disabilities, children, youth, low-income groups, marginalized cultures and others who might often overlooked in the planning process? How can you represent the interests of future affected parties (future generations and residents)?

Public engagement techniques
What techniques will grab people’s interest and get them engaged in the project or plan? How will you convince them that getting involved is worth their time and effort? What incentives can you offer? How will you demonstrate potential impact and benefits?

Communication strategies
How will you incorporate a one-way communication along with interactive, two-way communication to encourage participation? Here are some ways you could communicate with members of the public:

  • One-way communication – Email updates, information websites, press releases, public meetings or hearings, advisory committees, ads and newsletters
  • Two-way communication – Brainstorming sessions, listening sessions, workshops, phone conversations, formal/informal chats, information kiosks and online chat

How will you track all your communication and contacts in one place to ensure proper follow up and responses? Do you need to sign up for stakeholder management software so you have a system in place to keep on top of your communication and tasks?

Participation methods
How will you provide people with the information and access they need to have a real impact on decision making and outcomes? How will you make participation possible and accessible for everyone?

Reporting and analysis
How will you communicate with people after they’ve participated to share what happened and why? When will you share the outcomes and how participation impacted on decisions? How will your organisation reflect internally on how you’d change or improve your public involvement process for next time?

This should give you a rough structure to start your public involvement plan, but just like there’s no two infrastructure projects or communities exactly the same, there’s no one size fits all plan. So be sure to create a plan that’s tailored to meet the needs of your community and project.

Where to start with public involvement

Ready to get started? The first step is to create your public involvement plan. Then you’ll know what your goals are and what actions you need to take.

Then set up a platform to manage stakeholder relationships, tasks and communication with your members of the public all in one place from the start. Sign up for your free 7-day trial if you’d like to try the Simply Stakeholders platform out and see how we can help you succeed with your public involvement strategy.

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