Each year Ausgrid spends approximately AUD 40 million on managing vegetation around their electricity network. Ausgrid has the largest network in Australia, supplying 1.7 million customers in Sydney, the Central Coast and Hunter regions of New South Wales. Vegetation management is essential maintenance and plays a critical role in ensuring a safe and reliable power supply to homes and businesses across the network.
Following increasing levels of enquiries and complaints from the community relating to tree trimming and its impacts, Ausgrid engaged Aurecon to develop and implement a robust stakeholder and community engagement programme. The brief was to understand interests and perceptions around tree trimming to improve future communication and engagement. With an improved understanding of the community’s attitudes towards tree trimming, Ausgrid could tailor the programme to better reflect community values, while still prioritising safety, and potentially reduce costs by implementing a more sustainable and cost-effective vegetation management programme.
Aurecon’s comprehensive four-year end-to-end community and stakeholder engagement programme started with understanding community interests about vegetation management and developing improved communication about future tree trimming practices. Community feedback led to the establishment of a working group and implementation of changes to trimming practices, clearance distances and annual precinct planning with councils in the network area.
Our strategy was based on the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) Community Engagement Spectrum with key components being to inform and consult with the community and key stakeholders.
Laying the foundations for engagement success, Aurecon facilitated meaningful and often challenging conversations with the broader community, community stakeholder groups, councils, contractors, emergency services, and local and state government.
A wide range of engagement tools were used. Forums and regular workshops with a consultative group helped to understand community and stakeholder concerns, provide clarity on the framework that Ausgrid was required to work in to ensure safety around power lines and reliability, as well as plan how community and stakeholder feedback would be used in the revised vegetation management precinct plans.
Digital engagement tools were also successfully employed to obtain feedback from a broader range of the public who would not normally participate. Pop up events were held in areas across Ausgrid’s network where it was known there were community concerns regarding tree trimming. The selected areas were where Ausgrid had previously received a range of community feedback on its vegetation management. Participants were able to take a ‘selfie’ survey via an iPad and play an augmented reality (AR) tree game that showed what would occur if trees weren’t trimmed. Fact sheets, website information, an online portal for the working group, letterbox drops including postcards, regular meetings with key stakeholders and information distributed via media and social media were all used as part of Aurecon’s engagement programme.
Aurecon’s innovative use of digital technology to create an augmented reality (AR) game and an interactive ‘selfie’ survey proved to be extremely successful. These tools drove meaningful engagement in a fun and innovative way. Being gamelike, the tools enabled users to suspend reality and participate in the engagement without previous conceptions about tree trimming. It was the responses from the digital engagement that enabled Aurecon to get insights that would have been challenging to get otherwise, e.g. some people would be willing to pay more on their electricity bills if trees were trimmed less. The other advantage of the ‘selfie’ survey was the way it attracted a broader range of public participation and the results were received in real time.
Aurecon’s AR tree game was interactive and educational allowing participants to see how trees close to power lines could become a safety hazard. It involved two participants: one participant looked into the AR goggles, visualising a virtual tree and a virtual power line in the ’real world’, while the second participant moved markers that changed the virtual tree’s position around the virtual power line. If the tree was placed too close to the power line, the tree burst into flames, demonstrating how vegetation management is an essential practice to avoid safety hazards around power lines.
In a unique approach, Aurecon partnered with the University of Sydney for the development of an interactive ‘selfie’ survey to appeal to a different audience from those that traditionally participate in Ausgrid’s community engagements. Unprecedented in the industry at the time, Aurecon’s selfie survey used three simple survey questions that were answered with a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ via a selfie photo. The use of this technology created a fun and interactive engagement environment, which generated interest and drew in members of the public who would not have ordinarily participated. It was a quick, simple and enjoyable way for people to have their say, as well as reducing data entry and eliminating the need to reply on paper-based feedback forms.
The existing vegetation management procedure was complex and involved public and worker safety requirements needing to be adhered to; relationships with third party tree trimmers; and trees near to power lines that needed to be trimmed that were council assets. In addition, the high social value that the community placed on trees, particularly in the more urban areas meant the issue of vegetation management was highly emotive and contentious. Other considerations arose from Ausgrid’s extensive network, where councils and communities in more regional areas had different concerns, such as bushfire management.
To effectively engage with the community and other stakeholders, Aurecon’s approach prioritised the provision of easy to understand information that was shared through creative, positive and proactive engagement. Aurecon’s team successfully built trust through the regular provision of information on the existing vegetation management programme and, as the engagement progressed, how the stakeholders could have their say and influence the revised vegetation management. By gaining trust, Aurecon was able to turn the engagement from a negative, contentious dialogue into a positive and constructive forum.
The engagement programme helped to build strong and continuing relationships between Ausgrid and the community, and created better processes for vegetation management. It has also provided a new path for engagement practice on contentious projects and community issues through the use of innovative digital engagement.
Ausgrid accepted and acted on all recommendations presented by Aurecon and has since partnered with the Aurecon team on further projects to improve its relationships with stakeholders over various issues.