This article was originally published in the November/December 2017 issue of the ReNew Canada Magazine.
Historically, community relations and stakeholder engagement in infrastructure and urban development projects were considered an ancillary function. It was about satisfying regulatory requirements and social expectations. Many proponents went through the motions, often reluctantly, hosting promotional open houses and presenting at public hearings projects which could only accommodate symbolic adjustments. That’s changing.
This approach is no longer enough to get projects approved. Simply going through the motions can lead to projects being delayed and derailed by citizens, interest groups and local politicians.
In a recent editorial feature, the National Post identified 35 large-scale infrastructure projects — collectively worth about $129 billion — that have been blocked or cancelled due to resistance movements. Hundreds more have faced similar challenges.
The legitimacy of regulatory approval processes for projects like these has often been called into question. Criticisms stem from apparent bias and procedural flaws to lack of public input in decision-making.
In a recent nationwide survey conducted by Hill+Knowlton Strategies, 56 per cent of Canadians said they would participate more in infrastructure project consultations in their communities if they felt their participation would impact the project. Forty-nine per cent said they would do so if they believed decision-makers listened to the results.
The bottom line? Citizens and interest groups expect more from the participatory process than an opportunity to voice their opinions. And they want to play a bigger part in decisions when projects affect them.
The notion of “social acceptability” is gradually finding its way into the government’s lexicon and is increasingly invoked in project evaluations. That means proponents need to demonstrate wide public support for their projects to even be considered worthy of being granted with approvals and permits. More than ever, they’re expected to make all reasonable efforts to respond to legitimate stakeholder concerns before governments determine whether or not to approve their projects.
Some will argue that the notion of social acceptability is too vague to be applicable and would not stand the test of the rule of law; that, as a decision-making criterion, it gives too much importance to individuals and interest groups. But the Superior Court of Québec seems to think differently and a recent ruling legitimizes this emerging concept.
Following the Québec minister of environment’s refusal to authorize a mining exploration project, the Court rejected a claim by Ressources Strateco Inc. based primarily on the absence of social acceptability. Strateco argued that social acceptability was not a valid consideration for which to grant — or not grant — a permit. The Court concluded that social acceptability must be considered for projects subject to regulatory approval processes even though the legislation does not refer to it, as it would be inappropriate to arrive at an outcome that would allow a project that is clearly rejected by the local community.
For proponents, this means there’s a need to recognize that the political climate and regulatory landscape are both evolving. Completing the required impact studies and following a mandatory approval process doesn’t translate into an automatic green light for a given project. No matter how inclined government is to approve a project, and regardless of the number of influential advocates who back it, it’s no longer enough to overcome community resistance if and when it occurs.
And when it comes to potential community resistance, mitigation through early and meaningful engagement is key.
Typically, infrastructure and urban development projects involve many stakeholders, with diverse and sometimes conflicting interests. It’s no secret that identifying and addressing stakeholder concerns and issues is important. But giving proper attention to social and political risks early in the planning stage is imperative. Anticipate roadblocks, decide on appropriate responses and prevent negative outcomes — that’s how to avoid major disruptions down the road.
Gone are the days when economic benefits and job creation, however significant, are enough to rally support. Health, quality of life and protecting the environment are all things communities want to consider. So proponents must build in as much flexibility as possible to accommodate a variety of interests.
Strategies, too, need to be defined and implemented during a project’s life cycle. This requires close collaboration between project teams and engagement specialists. A successful community and stakeholder relations program will usually blend a variety of targeted in-person and digital participatory tools. It will reach out to all key stakeholders — including those who offer opposing views — rather than solely championing advocates.
Obviously, it’s rare for everyone to agree on all aspects of a project; but, in our experience, assisted negotiations often provides opportunities to find common interests. This, of course, helps define conditions that work for the majority and allow a project to become more broadly accepted. The result is that conflicts don’t spiral out of control and it’s easier to resolve differences as the project unfolds.
With the emerging notion of social acceptability gaining ground in government circles, there’s no doubt that we’re entering a post-consultation era.
Citizens and interest groups not only realize their influence, but expect to take part in decisions that affect them. That clearly means there’s a need for more strategic community and stakeholder engagement. To manage risks. To avoid pitfalls. And to successfully deliver projects.
Senior Vice President, Infrastructure and Urban Development