Ahead of his presentation at the 12th Annual UK Light Rail Conference, Dr Stuart Thomson considers the vital, and often overlooked role, of stakeholder engagement.
Good infrastructure project development should be a mix of art and science. Too, often, however, projects are developed on pieces of paper and in the confines of a room dominated by the experts. The science takes over without the art being considered.
The suggestion is not that the public are ignored. Instead, the engagement with the public only takes place late in the process of development and does not allow for any real input. This, in turn, leads to accusations that the plans are already decided and that the public has no real say. Experts may be useful but projects need to talk to real people and politicians.
If this sentiment is allowed to take root then if projects do come forward they will fail in the face of public opposition and politicians are given the chance to withdraw support. There is now a level of expectation about engagement and consultation that projects can struggle to keep up with. We live in a post-expert age where the public expects to be involved even if many then choose not to participate.
What this means is building in a communications strategy from the very earliest stages of project development. If communications are considered only a ‘sales job’ then the project will struggle and can ultimately fail.
The public can easily see through a PR job.Politicians too do not like to be excluded from projects in their area, developed ‘behind closed doors’ – we’ve all seen how such projects can then be on the receiving end of public criticism. The more a local community can help design a project, the more politicians will like it. Spinning the benefits of an already devised scheme to a sceptical local audience and politicians is tough to say the least.
An innovative model for project development should include ‘people power’. This would deliver a number of benefits not least revealing real world feedback that can otherwise be lacking. Planning through a ruler and spreadsheet does not bring a project alive for communities. It also misses the fundamental benefits to a project that engagement brings.
The culture of projects needs to shift so that communications are seen not just as part of implementation. Not merely an afterthought once a gleaming project has been produced. It has to part of the core model for the project development.
Central government too has a role, not least because of its financial stake. However much it may talk the language of devolution, ultimately most decisions will rest with them. So projects needs to consider relations with the department (Ministers and officials).
My session at the UK Light Rail Conference in July will consider how communications can be included from the start of a project, not simply thought of as a way of selling the un-sellable.
Dr Stuart Thomson
Head of Public Affairs, Bircham Dyson Bell
Dr Stuart Thomson is a public affairs and communications specialist at Bircham Dyson Bell and has worked on a number of high-profile political, media relations and crisis communications programmes across the transport sector. He is part of the firm’s Major Projects team, which have been involved in the development of many light rail and urban transit schemes and have been recognised as top of the field (Chambers).
Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues – you can find his blog on public affairs and communications issues at www.bdb-law.co.uk/publicaffairsblog
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