We need to engage public head-on about future infrastructure

The infrastructure sector needs to respond to the challenge to engage effectively with the public about infrastructure by telling a better story more boldly, says Michael Vivona

National Infrastructure Commission chair, Sir John Armitt, identified public engagement as one of the biggest challenges for the sector. In the digital age, where individuals can influence decision-making with a single click, the quality of public engagement determines a project’s success.

As the Association for Consultancy and Engineering develops its Future of Consultancy campaign, there is great opportunity to put public and community engagement front and centre. 

Public consultation is too often approached as an exercise in risk mitigation, rather than meaningful dialogue with communities. The discussion is shaped by the need to respond to opposition, rather than the opportunity to tell a compelling story about the benefits of a project.

In shaping the future of public engagement in planning consultation and infrastructure delivery, we should be guided by the following priorities:

Engaging the silent majority - we have the opportunity to reach beyond the usual suspects and unlock a representative cross-section of community opinion across all demographics. Political support flows from social consent. By giving a voice to those under-represented in traditional consultation – busy families, students and young professionals, minority communities – we gain a truer picture of opinion, secure better feedback and deliver greater legitimacy for a project’s objectives.

Deploying new technologies - the underlying principle remains to engage where people congregate. Public exhibitions in village halls still have their place, but where people gather is just as likely to be on Twitter or in the pub. We should aim to harness the potential of artificial intelligence and social listening tools to understand the widest target audience, in ways which suit our busy and digital lives.

Committing for the long term - planning consultation is one step in a wider process of continuous dialogue with communities. People see through token consultation. To be effective and representative, engagement should be early, authentic and repeated. The game-changing ability to harness and compare data, consistent with privacy and data rights, allows us to build an in-depth picture of public opinion over time. Decision-makers want to see how public opinion evolves rather than being presented with a single snapshot.

Being bold - the onus is on our sector to have the confidence to get our message across. Public engagement can be difficult. Social media can feel like a bear-pit. It is easy to shy away from difficult conversations. But experience shows us that not engaging is not an option. Vocal opposition will shape public, media and political perception if it is the only side of the story. We must engage head on.

Opposition and criticism are facts of life. It is those projects which listen and respond to feedback confidently which earn public trust. Each project has a persuasive story to tell, not just about what it brings to local community, but about the contribution infrastructure makes to the wellbeing and prosperity of the nation.    

Hannah Vickers, ACE’s chief executive, describes this as a “perfect moment for change”, as we enter a new era of design and delivery in the built environment. Putting people’s views at the heart of future infrastructure planning and delivery will be a huge part of that.

Michael Vivona is head of major projects at Social Communications.