Where’s the community? The elephant in the room

This thought piece was first published as part of the NextGen Research page. The NextGen project is Australia’s largest study on engagement and infrastructure delivery

The Next Gen engagement project asks;

How can we do community engagement better and in doing so, deliver the infrastructure we need more efficiently and with better outcomes for impacted communities?

We are adopting a co-design approach, hosting a number of facilitated discussions and undertaking a national survey with our project partners. Our partners include leading infrastructure bodies, research partners and civil society groups. The ultimate aim is to develop a program or research work for the next 3-5 years to answer some of the issues raised during the project.

Our situational analysis asks a range of really important, critical questions, such as

  • If we ask communities for more input and give stakeholders more say, how do we ensure that their ideas and advice are incorporated into project planning and delivery in a meaningful way? At the same time, how do we ensure that Australia still gets the infrastructure it needs, rather than just the infrastructure that is popular?
  • How can projects allow for consultation about whether or not a project should be started, not just how a project is delivered?
  • What is the earliest point at which engagement is likely to be most meaningful and most effective, for all parties concerned?

We are working with dedicated, engaged professionals, who are committed to delivering great outcomes for infrastructure and the affected communities. So, some have (rightly) asked – if this is about community engagement, if ensuring community is at the fore of the project, if we are arguing that communities should be involved and listened to…where, in the NextGen project, is the community?

It is the elephant in the room. Involving the community is something we have grappled with and wrestled with, discussed and (heatedly!) debated. Should we be including community groups at this stage? If so, which groups? If our focus is on industry, are we reinforcing notions that ‘we know best’ when to engage with community, something we are trying to question?

Some of our concerns around ‘who represents the community’ and ‘which community’ acknowledge that capturing all community perspectives at this stage is simply beyond the scope of this project. We still could be seeking out input, perhaps through selection of one community impacted by infrastructure development. But this leads to one of our key concerns – research fatigue.

Here we draw on our experience as researchers, both as academics and social scientists, who between us have extensive experience working with and in affected communities. This research suggests many communities are research-fatigued. Research fatigue is when people, particularly because of their identity or, importantly here, location, become involved in so many research projects they get tired of talking to researchers (Clark 2008). This fatigue can come from a frustration of providing time, knowledge and experience, and seeing little impact or outcomes from the project. Some of the communities in the Hunter Valley for example may have multiple coal mines nearby who want to talk to them, as well as CSG companies, as well as consultants, as well as academics, all wanting to talk to understand and measure the community’s experiences. This observation has led to projects such as the Hunter Valley Mining Dialogue and our work encouraging the consideration of Cumulative Impacts. Cumulative Impacts, and Cumulative Impact Assessments, recognise that communities may be affected by multiple projects, across time and industries, and ensuring coordinated approaches to researching and measuring impacts both acknowledges the total impacts of these projects and can reduce the burden on communities.

For the NextGen project, we want to ensure communities are meaningfully engaged. For us, this means we respect communities time and knowledge that they bring to our research, so we want to be clear that when this is provided it will be used and useful. We want to be able to take industries ideas to communities and ask them – this is what industry is saying are the challenges, what do you think? We want to understand if communities agree or disagree and why, what is missing, and what is needed from their perspective, in a way that respects their experiences and knowledge. For us, what this looks like and who we talk to is likely at the next stage of the project but, we’re interested to hear from you on this one. Is there a way at this early stage we can include communities, and which communities would that be?  Is our pragmatism and concerns about meaningful engagement outweighing our obligations to have all groups represented? We’d love to hear what you think on this one.