Social licence risk has increased as a result of the government stimulus designed to kick start an economy battered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A cash injection and political momentum is good news for the economy, but the current approach of reducing red tape, increasing technical efficiencies and shortening timelines is likely to backfire as communities recover from the social and economic consequences of the pandemic.
Governments are incentivised to deliver an immediate stimulus to the economy and businesses are eager to recoup their losses. However, the pressure to fast-track projects is counter-productive and often antithetical to communities that expect genuine involvement in decision-making, increasing the perception that their interests have been underestimated, undervalued or simply ignored.
With more than $7.5 billion in infrastructure investment fast-tracked this year alone, community opposition is one of the biggest risks facing Australia’s economic recovery.
“When communities are opposed to a project, they react emotionally and do whatever they can to challenge it
Buy-in begins with strategy and culture
To create community support for infrastructure, the first step must be to ensure project directors have a social licence to operate mindset. This must also be reflected in the strategy, implementation and organisational culture of the project.
The benefit of this mindset is that it enables a strategy and culture that addresses not only the technical issues, but also the emotional issues related to the project.
The strategy needs to create alignment between all units and areas within an organisation to ensure outrage risks are managed effectively. Therefore, to understand the strategy and its context, a mindset that understands the purpose of a social licence is crucial.
This helps develop and deliver a consistent approach to resolving, engaging and communicating about community concerns within the organisation and, if relevant, within and between multiple organisations such as government stakeholders and sub-contractors. Ideally the internal alignment should be completed first.
Engagement and communications need to be layered for transparency
Delivering the strategy requires layering communications and engagement in a way the reflects the needs of the audience. It requires the engagement process in addition to the content to reflect the needs of the audiences for which they are intended.
While society today may demand more involvement, there is also evidence of consultation fatigue. In this scenario, meaningless engagement can be at best a waste of time and at worst counterproductive or even damaging.
The first and most important step is to understand who needs to be engaged and what level of engagement is demanded by the community. The appropriate processes and content can then be developed.
The second layer of communication required is to make the process of engagement and involvement completely transparent and navigable for all potential stakeholders. This includes people who are highly involved or attentive to the issues, those interested to learn more as well as the general public.
The objective is to ensure that all stakeholders understand how they can become involved in the engagement process should they choose to, rather than simply being told a process is taking place. This helps avoid ambiguity that may occur as a result of top-down communications that serve a technical purpose, rather than a community engagement purpose.
While not everyone may choose to participate directly, communications still need to give people a sense of what matters and why, what is and what is not resolved and why, and what is being done to resolve it.