Talking With the Public
March 1, 2007
By Bronwen Parsons
By law most large engineering projects today have to pass an environmental review, part of which involves public consultations. As a result, consulting engineers are finding themselves involved in num...
By law most large engineering projects today have to pass an environmental review, part of which involves public consultations. As a result, consulting engineers are finding themselves involved in numerous meetings where all the plans have to be laid before local citizens, native groups or whoever else wants a say in what gets built.
In the article “People Power” on page 24 we explore how these changes have given consulting engineers a new role: they are having to master the art of public relations.
The activists and citizen groups who populate public consultation meetings can be formidable opponents. They are vocal, well educated, often well heeled, and well informed. Thanks to the internet, they can organize and muster information at the click of a mouse. They also seem to have lots of time to dedicate to their causes, and the media is more than happy to give them air time and ink. Protesters waving placards saying No to roads and incinerators provide the television stations and newspapers with ready-made human drama.
This kind of activism leads to frustrating delays and added costs, but it also has a positive side. Engineers are listening more closely to the public and finding ways to respond to their needs as well as those of the client. They are also finding ways to communicate technical issues in a way that ordinary people understand. That hasn’t always happened in the past, partly I fear because engineers didn’t think the public needed to know all the details. And if there are economic reasons why a project has to be done a certain way, then the engineers and their client have to be up-front about them as well. All this makes for a better project in the end.
John Boyd, P.Eng., senior principal at Golder Associates in Toronto, is president-elect of FIDIC, the international federation of consulting engineers based in Geneva. We asked for his views about the engineer’s evolving public role. “Engineers have two essential roles in public consultation,” Boyd writes. “One of them is increasing constantly. The other is at present almost non-existent in an organized way but … is perhaps even more important.
“The first is the role of technical proponent in which we operate on our client’s behalf to explain to members of the general public what we want to do and why the choice we have made is the right choice. This role puts huge demands on the members of our industry that were not previously there — listening to and understanding non-technical issues of concern to the public, expressing complex technical issues in a non-technical way, public speaking and participating in often heated and emotional debates.
“The missing role is that of technical participant in the audience on issues of public concern. Many decisions that are made with public participation involve technical issues that the general public is ill-equipped to evaluate. In the absence of an engineering voice, the decisions are made without adequate input on technical issues, quite often with misleading, erroneous, or at least misunderstood information.
“I believe very strongly,” continues Boyd, “that engineers have a responsibility to act as the trusted advisors to society on these technical issues and to ensure that decisions involving public participation include a knowledgeable discussion of these issues as well as the other equally important non-technical ones.”