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Why engaging with the public is more than just about consultations

07 August 2019

Monika Szczyrba, a graduate civil engineer at Stantec, explains why she's working to develop best practice guidance for winning public support for civil engineering projects. 

Why engaging with the public is more than just about consultations
Monika Szczyrba

I remember my first site visit to a flood alleviation scheme in Devon, which showcased how genuine, community engagement can lead to a project being delivered on time and within budget.

How did this happen? The design team listened to residents’ concerns and took them on board in shaping the project.

The local community didn't want a large concrete wall obstructing their stunning views of the estuary, even if it protected them from flooding.

Hence, the flood protections were designed within the facades of the houses - invisible to passers-by. The community felt so empowered by this engagement that they volunteered to lead parts of the protection controls to safeguard their town from flooding.

Public interaction = obstacle to projects?

Coming to the industry with a fresh mind, this is how I imagined most projects would be implemented in civil engineering practice.

But I soon found that any kind of interaction with the public is often seen as an obstacle to projects, with supposed risks ranging from delays, to negative press, and even failures in delivering the scheme.

It made me realise how important community engagement is to the success of projects, and how unskilled we often are as engineers to communicate effectively, and work with the public.

Public engagement as an opportunity

I want to see a future where infrastructure projects place communities at the heart of decision making and engage them in delivery of projects.

If we're going to leave behind a legacy for future generations to thrive in, we'll need to be imaginative about how we do this. And I think there's a great potential in embracing the public and making our designs even more relevant to users’ needs.

ICE defines civil engineers’ purpose as improving people’s lives.

If our purpose is to serve communities as best as we can, how can we achieve it without fully understanding the public’s needs and the impact of our projects on citizens?

More focus on added value than overall cost

A recent policy paper produced by the ICE tried to address the overruns of costs on major infrastructure projects.

As part of this study a YouGov survey was undertaken, and the results showed that almost 75% of the public is more interested in understanding the value our projects bring to communities than achieving the lowest cost of delivery.

I strongly believe that if we partner with the public consistently in shaping and delivering our projects, we can build trust and improve general opinion of the industry.

But we already engage with communities. What’s different to current practice?

Over the last year, I've spoken to multiple practitioners from water and transportation sectors across the UK, as well as expert teams from my parent company (Stantec) in US and Canada.

I've been learning how empowering it is to place communities at the centre of decision making across various projects. However, there are multiple challenges to making it business-as-usual practice:

Community engagement vs public consultation

Community engagement is more than informing the public of our plans. To me, it's a move from seeing the public as passive receivers of services to seeing them as active participants in delivery of those services.

Communities have a lot of knowledge and creativity that we can harness to solve problems and innovate. This way, we empower the users to have a voice and give them more control on things that really matter to them.

With the rise of open data and new technologies, we'll be seeing more of this approach across various industries – we mustn't lag behind and risk becoming obsolete.

Lack of consistency in approach and poor knowledge sharing

Making communities active contributors of our designs and solutions isn't widely seen as a key strategy.

We have a lot of examples of successful partnerships with communities, but most of this work is being done in an isolated manner.

There's a great opportunity to learn from each other, and through this process also understand how we can better quantify the social value of our projects.

Shaping the strategic vision on community engagement

Last month (July 2019), I pitched my proposal to the ICE Council on why we should take the lead and shape a strategic vision on working with communities to deliver better infrastructure for all.

I'm delighted to say that the ICE Council is very supportive of the project and we're exploring ways to deliver on the common vision.

How you can get involved

This is by no means an exhaustive plan but a set of first steps required to start bringing about the change.

It's an innovative approach that aims at transforming how the industry works with communities. It will take time, but I'm convinced that we, at the ICE, are best placed to take on a leadership role, and help our industry deliver more inclusive communities that are driven by users’ needs.

Our initial plan is as follows:

  • A draft of good practice guidance on community engagement focused on the regulated water industry. Based on case studies from across the industry, this is a first step in sharing good practice.
  • Setting up an ICE Community of Practice (CoP) on community engagement in delivering infrastructure projects.
  • This will be a great opportunity for practitioners from various sectors, not only civil engineers, to come together and share their experiences in working with the public. Keep following the ICE’s news – you'll soon hear more about how to get involved in the CoP.
  • Embedding good practice
  • We'd like to partner with three to four infrastructure projects next year, which will trial the methods from this guidance and share lessons learnt through the ICE to the wider community.
  • Industry–wide debate on community and stakeholder engagement in delivery of infrastructure projects

And before you move on, I'd like you to ask yourself, how can your organisation or your project benefit from more hands-on engagement with communities?

Get in touch

If you or your organisation would like to get involved with one or more of these steps, we'd love to hear from you – please contact me on [email protected].

  • Monika Szczyrba, President's Future Leader 2018/19 at ICE