Canadian Consulting Engineer

Managing Community Relationships

December 17, 2016
By Debbie Cox

Most large projects have to undergo extensive public consultations in order to win approval. Here’s advice on how to effectively handle these delicate community and stakeholder encounters.

Image: sharply_done/iStock

From the December 2016 print issue, page. 26.

These days the public expects to have a say in decisions that affect them. And public opinion matters. Government decision-makers look for evidence that the proponents have engaged in meaningful consultations with neighbours and stakeholders before granting approval for capital projects to proceed.
Since projects have been delayed or even cancelled due to public outrage, project managers are bringing social risk experts onto their project teams in the planning and design stages. Project managers recognize that early missteps can create long term challenges that are difficult or impossible to mitigate.
“Engineers aren’t trained to read stakeholders and identify their values,” says Timothy Phelan, P.Eng., project manager and vice-president with Opus International consultants in Kelowna, B.C. “Engineers tend to jump into the solution space without understanding people’s under­lying values.”
In many cases, the perfect technical solution isn’t the perfect solution for all stakeholders. The most efficient road alignment may significantly impact local homes and businesses. A large mining project that brings local contract and employment opportunities may also bring transient workers who disrupt the local economy and add stress to community health and social services. A new health care facility delivers much-needed health services, but also risks displacing its vulnerable and marginalized neighbours. Many stakeholders resist engineering projects because they are apprehensive the project will harm waterways, farmland and natural habitat.

Taking a planned approach
Too often project teams go through the motions of engaging communities without identifying how they will incorporate public comments into project design and decision-making. True stakeholder consultation identifies key areas where community input is required, documents and considers community comments, and reports back to the community on how its input has influenced the project.
Different projects require different levels of engagement. Designing and building a bridge and road network in a populated and congested urban environment requires a high level of engagement with many different individuals and groups. Working from a comprehensive communication and consultation plan mapped to the stages of the project, the team may hold face-to-face meetings, open houses, public forums and working sessions where stakeholders actively participate in planning and design. On less complex projects, community notification and public information sessions may be enough.
In the experience of Phelan and other project engineers, a professional and planned approach to stakeholder engagement saves time and money, and results in better decisions.
“The community knew more than we did about the area,” Phelan says about a community consultation they held to determine a preferred water pipe alignment. “They [the community] were familiar with the species that were there and where the springs were located. We may have made the same decision, but it happened faster because they provided us with the local knowledge.”

Tips on managing expectations
Its important for engineers and technical leaders to remember that large projects planned to be built in or near communities usually impact someone’s home, business or recreation area. Here are a few pointers to help make a good first impression:
• Start early. Reach out to the neighbours as soon as you have a project. Tell them what your team is thinking and ask for their thoughts well before all the details have been worked out.
• Ask questions and listen to the answers. If you are doing all the talking, you are missing a valuable opportunity to understand the community and identify ways to adjust your project to reduce local concerns.
• Try to keep the conversation based on the community’s interests and values. Ask: What do you like about your community? What elements of your neighbourhood do you value? What do we need to know as we begin to plan our project?
• Keep creating opportunities to build trust and positive relationships. Show up, even when you don’t want something, and keep people informed, even when you don’t have a lot of news to share.
Finding rhythm and symmetry in seemingly chaotic human social environments requires recognizing patterns and using that information to predict issues and forge relationships. Diplomacy, clear and accurate information, and respectful consultation and engagement are essential. They help to build durable, trust-based relationships that pave the way to mutually beneficial social and economic outcomes.cce

Debbie Cox is a social risk and social impact specialist who works with communities and organizations. President of James Laurence Group in Vancouver, she has worked on large and complex infrastructure and resource projects across a variety of industries. Visit


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