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Fuelling community change with trust

With any big change, you need to capture the hearts and minds of the people affected. And that applies to everything from new schools to transport timetables.

The consequences of our excessive use of plastic can no longer be ignored. Plastic is everywhere – infiltrating our sewers, our oceans, and even the food we eat.

Because of this, organisations and companies worldwide are taking measures to alleviate the damage caused by our personal demand for convenience. One of the more popular initiatives being practiced is the Bring-Your-Own-Bag movement, which was recently adopted by Australian supermarket chain Coles.

While we can assume the supermarket chain had good intentions when they started charging for plastic bags, from the outside it looked as if they were approaching the issue as just a public relations exercise. Surprised by the customer backlash, and in a bid to regain support, the company reacted by dropping the charge. Then, in the face of broader public criticism about this decision, they announced they would reimpose the charge after all.

This series of backflips came about because Coles tried to ‘do something to people’, rather than ‘with them’. They didn’t allow for their customers to be a part of the change, and they didn’t give their staff any solutions to manage customer reaction.

A better starting point would have been to acknowledge that plastic bags served a real purpose and listen to customer ideas on other ways to meet that need. Although most people philosophically agree with removing plastic bags, Coles needed to talk to its customers about its plans before removing the bags.

If Coles had listened to their customers, they might have heard people saying, “Don’t take them away so quickly – we need a transition period.” Or even, “We’re happy to pay for alternative bags if part of the price is donated to an environmental cause.”

Around where I live, for example, a community group has been sewing cloth bags from recycled fabric. The shopkeepers give them to customers for free, but customers are welcome to make a donation to help cover costs.

Businesses and politicians need to appreciate that people, especially in Australia, are not going to do something just because they’re told to. With any big change, you need to capture the hearts and minds of the people affected. And that applies to everything from new schools to transport timetables.

If you get it right, people are more likely to want to be a part of it. If you don’t, the commercial risk is high. The recent University of Melbourne’s Next Generation Engagement Project found that, in the last decade, $20 billion of road infrastructure projects were put on hold, delayed or cancelled because of community outrage.

The social risk is also high, because that anger impacts on the reputation of the political party in government and on the government agency involved. You lose credibility and trust, putting your social licence to operate at risk.

I work on what I call the Social Triangle Theory, which says that every society is made up of three major components. First is the political leadership of your tribe or country and second is your religious leadership. Third is your community, defined as your family, friends, neighbours and others who share your ‘place’.

Private corporations fit somewhere along the line between political and religious institutions. I work across Australia, New Zealand and Africa, and I have yet to find a society that doesn’t fit this model.

But what we have seen in the last decade, particularly in Australia and New Zealand, is a loss of trust in our political and religious leaders. People are walking away from these institutions.

What we’ve got left, the only thing we trust, is community – our people (friends and family) and our place (our land, street, town or suburb). If anything threatens that, we’re going to react in a way that may seem emotionally out of proportion compared to what we saw 10 or 20 years ago.

That’s why controversial infrastructure projects can attract such strong reactions, targeted for a range of issues seemingly unrelated to the actual project. For example, in the past, we have seen a failure to engage communities early on for road projects leading to locals attributing everything from increasing school sizes to privatisation of transport networks to the original infrastructure plan. The level of outrage can reflect the mistrust in the institutions that make up the city. And if people don’t trust institutions, conspiracy theories take hold.

The good news is that a few simple principles can reliably guide your community engagement. The first step is to understand the community that you’re impacting, the community you’re potentially impacting, and the community you’re perceived as impacting – and remember that these can be three different groups.

Secondly, start talking to them to help people understand the parameters of the project and how they can be involved. Be really clear about what those engagement and communications channels are.

Thirdly, use the channels that they are already using to seek, source and share information. The channels need to be specific to the community with which you’re dealing. With Sydney’s Wynyard Station, we knew that 100 000 commuters passed through it every day and all of them had a phone, so we offered an app that uses virtual reality to show what the station will look like once the redevelopment is complete.

Fourthly, set up a feedback loop so you can establish transparency and trust. You need to go back to people and say, “We heard what you said, and this is what we’re doing about it.”

I firmly believe that people who are affected by a policy, project or business decision should have an opportunity to have some input into that decision. But engagement is not a vote. It’s not, ‘Tell me what you want and I’ll do it.’ It’s finding out the community’s local expertise and adding it to the design where it’s relevant. It’s not as easy as simply laying down the rules and expecting people to blindly follow, either. It takes time and effort to build rapport among your stakeholders, but once you go the extra mile to listen to their insights and feedback, you don’t just gain their trust, you also come up with more effective solutions that resonate with the community you are serving.


About the Author

Kylie Cochrane

Kylie is Aurecon's Global Lead for Communication and Stakeholder Engagement and the International Chair of the International Association of Public Participation Australasia. She has over 25 years of experience in community and stakeholder engagement, strategic communication, and issues management in the resources, energy, and community development sectors.


This article is an adaptation of LinkedIn Pulse by Kylie Cochrane titled, “Trust is key when driving community change"

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