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Why community engagement is as important as ever in a COVID-19 world

 

The Federal, State and Territory Governments’ social distancing measures for COVID-19 present new and unusual challenges for the extractive industry – but as Michelle Connelly explains, that doesn’t mean you can drop the ball when it comes to engaging and communicating about your project.

Community engagement is more important than ever and now, possibly more than at any other time, it’s important to keep conversations going and to find ways to do that in a virtual world.

Whether your interactions are face to face or you employ a suite of virtual methods such as Google hangouts, Zoom, Microsoft Teams and social media, the key principles of engagement and communication apply. 

Social distancing rules and the innovative methods of engagement they necessitate aren’t the only things that have changed. The place of quarries – and, for that matter, gravel pits, sand, asphalt and concrete plants – in our communities has also undergone a dramatic transformation.

Not so many years ago, our “urban” quarries were nowhere near residential developments. New neighbourhoods, built on the quarry’s supply of aggregates and manufactured product, were comfortably geographically distant. Industry sites had few near neighbours, so “amenity” didn’t feature as a prominent principle of design.

But as we’ve all seen, times have changed, and this is no longer the case. Now, residential and mixed-use subdivisions march closer to our operations. So close, it’s almost co-location. As the number and susceptibility of sensitive receptors have increased, there’s been a proportional uptick in opposition. 

Community campaigns against greenfield and brownfield developments, pit expansions and tenure extensions thrive in communities where a quarry’s social licence is frayed. But well planned and authentic engagement leads to exchanges of opinion and mutual perspective-taking. It enables you to share your story and listen and act on the stories of stakeholders. It enables respectful education, story sharing and collaboration.

Data gathered during the engagement process can be considered when you’re making decisions or setting directions. Engagement also fosters trust, promotes the credibility of a project and conveys the legitimacy that make up your social licence.

WHAT IS A SOCIAL LICENCE?

In a nutshell, the social licence is the unwritten endorsement for your continued operation by your stakeholders. It is defined in the subjective terms of perception and community sentiment. It’s priceless and can’t be bought, sold, traded or regulated and once you have attained it, you will find that complaint and opposition settle. 

If you don’t engage with neighbours and others beyond your fence, you’re in a communication vacuum, which can soon breed opposition or protest. Trash talk can generate fear, which can morph into outrage. Fearful people seek each other out and, in a digitally-connected world, can quickly mobilise collective action.

In this COVID-19 age, the place of quarries in our communities has undergone a dramatic transformation.

BETTER ENGAGEMENT

Engagement is a process, so it’s made up of key steps that should be followed.

First, you need to identify your stakeholders and prepare to engage them by having all the necessary information on hand.

Then begin open conversations about your project. This can normally be done in person, online or by remote communication but COVID-19 restrictions will obviously have an impact. Whenever possible, you should engage, talk and listen with your diverse stakeholders in the places they already gather (on- and off-line). You’ll find that peoples’ stories reveal the community’s aspirations, show you who the influencers are and reveal invaluable local knowledge and lived experience.

Engagement is a two-way street, so be sure to share your long-term plans and designs in your conversations. Remember that engagement is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process. It also includes the promise that the public’s contribution will influence your choices and promote sustainable decisions.

Engagement is conducted in the interests of all participants, including decision-makers and seeks out and facilitates the participation of those potentially affected by or interested in a decision. It seeks input from participants in designing how they participate and provides them with the information they need to participate in meaningful ways. Finally, engagement communicates to participants how their input affected your decisions.

UNDERSTANDING THE COMMUNITY

Remember, it is important that you respect local knowledge and build your own. Get your head around who’s who and understand the networked relationships between people and organisations which can prompt previously disinterested stakeholders to join protest action. 

You also need to understand the sources of opinion and complaint. If something is wrong, fix it and then tell people you did. 

You will need to assess the agendas and peer influence driving support and opposition. Don’t forget the importance of respecting established networks and the local knowledge that is their currency.

If quarry owners build a workable relationship with previously opposed people, it can facilitate constructive conversations that emerge when you find common ground.

And that means everyone is a winner.

Michelle Connelly is an advisor to the property development and extractive industries. As well as being Associate – Stakeholder Engagement and Communications with Vaxa Group, she is a director on the IQA Board and a Fellow of the Urban Development Institute of Australia.

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