Claire McDermott from Studio 24, Simon Bennett from Crossrail, Claire Barker from the Urban Growth Company, and James York from Costain Group recently delivered a webinar on stakeholder engagement for Built Environment Networking.
The speakers presented examples of best practice from their work with stakeholders from the public and private sectors including communities, contractors, local government, and national government. In this article, we have summarised the key points from the webinar into themes.
Stakeholder engagement can be complex, but it is an important part of the development process no matter how big or how small your project is. Construction has an impact on communities – how people live, work, travel, and relax. Stakeholder engagement builds good relationships in the communities where developments take place and contributes to the success of the project.
Collaborating with higher-level stakeholders
Stakeholder engagement is most successful when you can identify key groups that can influence the success of the project. If you can identify areas of mutual interest, share experience and skills, and build a collaborative relationship then you are empowered to deliver a vision.
The Urban Growth Company (UGC) was set up by Solihull Council in 2015 with the remit to maximise all of the opportunities that would come with the arrival of HS2. UGC work with HS2 and other stakeholders – both public and private sector – to deliver economic, social, and environmental benefits for the area.
UCG’s stakeholders are those businesses based in the development zone called The Hub: Jaguar Land Rover, Birmingham Airport, the National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham International Station, and Birmingham Business Park.
Claire Barker explained that the most important thing from day one was governance. This included setting up a board for all of the business partners based at The Hub. The partners don’t have formal decision-making power, but they were given a voice and a platform and together with the UGC could present a united front. With the arrival of HS2, UGC made the case very early on that they could build something ambitious that would really deliver for local people. Stakeholders would see that HS2 was working in partnership with UGC to do something that was more ambitious than simply a railway line with a station and some car parking spaces. This was beneficial to both organisations.
Crossrail’s stakeholders are as high level as you can get. The construction of the scheme was authorised through the Crossrail Act 2008 – which required them to go to Parliament for authorisation. That came with a number of requirements for the way Crossrail and its contractors would communicate with residents, businesses, and other stakeholders during construction. This was laid out in the Crossrail Construction Code. The code was drawn up in consultation with the local authorities before and during the passage of the build. On royal assent, the code became binding on the Secretary of State to require from the organisation constructing the project.
Being responsive to community stakeholders
Stakeholders include anyone who will be impacted by your project. Stakeholder engagement involves listening to and acting on concerns. Engagement isn’t a one-off consultation, but an ongoing dialogue.
Simon Bennett explained that one of Crossrail’s principles was to ensure that there were no surprises to the community. Crossrail had an in-house helpdesk which, at the height of the work, had 7 members of staff answering phone calls and emails. Outside of office hours, the helpdesk was covered by a specialist communications company who were regularly trained and briefed. The aim was for all calls to be answered promptly, acknowledged, and complaints passed to contractors for a response to be given within 24 hours.
Claire McDermott talked about the work Studio 24 has done with HS2 for stakeholder engagement – specifically the route map on the HS2 website. As the project is current and ongoing, there are regular updates to the map. It isn’t a surprise that it’s the most visited page on the site, as HS2 updates information such as safeguarding plans, station information, and work items. HS2 has a wide range of stakeholders, and the map has to be able to provide clarity and detail to that wide audience.
Claire Barker explained the importance of committing to local community engagement. For example, when HS2 ran a series of community engagement events, the UGC attended every single one of those events. They didn’t want to be seen as a bystander on the project. So, they were in the shopping centres at 8pm on a Thursday and the village hall at 9am on a Saturday because it was important that local people understood the local benefits.
Coronavirus has meant challenges for face to face consultations, but with a challenge comes an opportunity. James York’s team has recently undertaken a public engagement event using a virtual platform. The exhibition had all the same information that would be pinned up on boards in a village hall and it included a chat function which was staffed by members of the Costain project team who were on hand to be able to answer any questions.
James was impressed with how efficient the virtual exhibition was to deliver a public exhibition. In the first 48 hours they had received 1500 visitors. These numbers would never have been achieved if they were in a local library or leisure centre.
A virtual exhibition can also gather a huge amount of intelligence about the people attending. James explained that he can see what the visitors are interested in, who they are, where they live etc. These types of tools blended with traditional face to face engagement could be incredibly powerful going forwards.
Claire McDermott recommended checking digital engagement tools for accessibility. For example, can the software be navigated with a screen reader or is there a text-only version of the visual content? If you held a live consultation for your project in a venue such as a community centre, you would need to make sure that the venue took into account the needs of visitors, for example by having wheelchair access. So, an online or virtual consultation needs to have the same considerations for all people. That way you can increase engagement.
Effective communication with stakeholders using digital
Consultation on Crossrail began in 2002 when communications were definitely not digital by default. However, they made sure that all communications were placed on their website throughout the consultation process and also that everything they produced was in plain English and available on request in community languages, braille, and audio recording.
The landscape for communications has changed enormously and there are many tools available now that make communication with stakeholders easier.
When Crossrail moved into construction in 2009, they worked with Studio 24 to develop the Near You map for their website. The map gives up-to-date information about the progress of construction and its impacts (for example start and end dates for the work) as well as showing the progress and expected location of the tunnel boring machines. Users of Near You are able to switch on or off various layers including downloadable information plans. Some of the information from those plans are embedded in the base mapping including the route of the tunnels and the extent of the new stations above and below ground.
Claire McDermott explained that there are some really good reasons to use an interactive map on your website to improve stakeholder engagement. There is a visual impact that gives the site a focal point and the information is easily digestible so it’s accessible to a wider audience.
In contrast to print, online content can be frequently changed and updated. Online maps will see many transitions over course of the development, so that visitors to it will be able to access the most recent information, and also that which is most relevant to them.
Costain has been using GIS map technology in its U-Route tool. The tool charts topographical, geographical, and technical information of proposed development work, for example, plotting a linear infrastructure route for a new road.
The U-Route tool can be taken to stakeholder engagements – whether that’s face to face or in a virtual exhibition – and allows members of the community to play around with the model. If the proposed development runs quite close to a residential area and people are unhappy with that, using the tool they can move the route and see the consequences. This could be an increase in carbon emissions or a decrease in social outcomes. The tool allows users to explore and understand decision making for various scenarios. Working in this way adds transparency to communications to build trust and confidence.
When Costain started preparing for work on the A465 in Wales, they reached out to over 3000 homes in the local communities by sending a letter seeking feedback from our communities as to how they’d like to be engaged with. Interestingly, only 35 people came back and asked to be communicated with via post. Having used mail by default for many projects over the years – including delivering thousands of letters himself – James York was slightly disheartened to hear that actually Costain could have used social media all that time!
James’ advice is to always ask people how they want to be communicated with. Social media has provided Costain with a fantastic platform providing that you are prepared to accept the negative feedback you’ll get from your community as well. Not all developments on an infrastructure project are always welcome by the public, for example where short-term disruption may be a consequence of the work.
Some of Costain’s projects have a significant Facebook reach of over 10,000 people and many thousands of twitter followers as well. This enables them to communicate with a much wider audience and to keep stakeholders apprised of developments on projects.
Often social media will drive people to your website for further details and clarification. Claire McDermott added that organising content for a website is really hard – especially when you have multiple stakeholders with competing needs. Everyone wants to arrive at your website and within one click be where they need to be. Designing your website content so that users can find what they need quickly and easily is going to improve engagement.
The key to tackling content hierarchy is talking – talk to the stakeholders, know what success looks like to them. The other key factor in content is open and honest communication. And if there is some unwelcome news project news be as honest and transparent as possible.
Building a good reputation
There are two phases to a project: pre and post authorisation. Before you have authorisation, you need to work hard to get stakeholders onside to support the project. Once you have authorisation you aren’t looking to change people’s minds about the project because it’s going to happen. But you are looking to shape their view about you as an organisation so they will trust you to do what you say. For Crossrail, part of this was their ‘no surprises’ policy.
Crossrail tracked their reputation through opinion research. Telephone interviews were undertaken with a sample of local residents and businesses around the work sites, plus representatives from the local authorities where Crossrail ran through, and previous users of the Crossrail helpdesks.
Simon Bennett explained the findings: the more familiar people were with the project the more favourable their opinion of the project. The clear conclusion is that you must communicate. The fundamental aim of community relations is to create trust by being open, honest, and responsive. Crossrail’s website and in particular the Near You map in conjunction with the help desk and in-person contact from Crossrail and their contractors, enabled them to establish and maintain their reputation to enable the delivery of the project.
The Urban Growth Company is fortunate because what they’re doing is 100% supported by the local partners from The Hub. Claire Barker explained that around the edges there are going to be differences, but they’ve worked really hard on that governance to bring people together and give them the right opportunities to share their thoughts. Because of that, the trust is there. Now if UGC asks for help from a partner, they will get it. It comes back to the shared vision – what they are doing is for the benefit of everybody.
With all types of stakeholder engagement, you need to get to know your community and digital can help with this. James York explained how Costain is starting to be able to understand who attends their public exhibitions, so they get to know who the stakeholders are. On a number of highways contracts, Costain was able to map customer complaints to workflows. On highway maintenance, for example, customers would complain to the help desk to report a pothole and Costain were are able to plot it on a GIS map, it then joins the workflow queue to be actioned by the maintenance team. Using digital to have this smooth delivery is much more efficient and builds good relationships with the community.
When thinking about engagement, identify your stakeholders and prioritise them. Are there groups you can work with collaboratively on a shared vision?
As the project progresses, stakeholder needs will change – be responsive to communities when they raise concerns. Your website is a really good way to communicate up to date project information and prioritise stakeholder concerns. Interactive maps especially are a great way to do this.
Ask communities how they want to be communicated with. Although Costain’s experience shows that digital is by far the most preferred method, a digital divide does exist and there is the potential to exclude those who don’t have access to digital.
Digital offers many possibilities for engaging with stakeholders – especially during the pandemic when face to face meetings are difficult. Online consultations can reach a much wider audience, and they can also provide the contractor with valuable insights about visitors. Tools such as U-Route which can be used virtually or face to face are very effective to help communities understand the decision-making process and to establish trust.
Stakeholder engagement whether face to face or online, with high-level stakeholders or community groups, as long as it is timely and honest it remains incredibly important to the success of a project and to the reputation of your organisation.
Claire Barker recommends: The Oxford Handbook of Megaproject Management
Simon Bennett recommends: Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: A twenty-first century guide
Also, The Consultation Institute for courses.
James York recommends: Scoring Points: How Tesco Continues to Win Customer Loyalty
Claire McDermott recommends subscribing to e-newsletters from Paul Boag – a useful blog on User Experience (UX) and managing stakeholders.