The following is the first in a new series of articles about the importance of public participation in engaging the public.

Over the past several months I’ve written extensively about the value of engaging the public.  In a world where the power of individuals is eclipsing the power of institutions, harnessing the power of the public is the difference between success and failure for any organization.

This is especially true when it comes to building large infrastructure projects.  There is simply no other type of decision that generates more debate than a question of whether or not a government and/or business should be allowed to complete large-scale construction projects.

It used to be that having government’s support would help ensure a project would go ahead.  Increasingly, however, governments have become more reluctant to use their full authority to push projects forward without signs of clear, strong, and active public support.

This begs the question, what does clear, strong, and active public support look like in this context.  I would argue that it means a critical mass of supporters who are not only following the issue, but are actively participating in the process – helping to shape outcomes and expressing their support to decision-makers.

If you think of public participation as a spectrum, at one end the organization pushes out information and the public’s participation is limited to consuming content. Moving past one-way communication out is a more consultative approach, where the organization commits to listening and the public provides their views on the project.

To the right of consultation is collaboration, where members of the public are given an opportunity to help shape project decisions.  I often refer to this as the point where we can begin to build support and buy-in by allowing the public to influence decisions.  The last part of the spectrum is sometimes referred to as a utopian goal. Co-creation is where members of the public and the project team work side-by-side to jointly agree on outcomes.  This represents the highest form of participation and engagement.

Determining the mix of public participation activities across the entire spectrum should be an essential part of the organization’s strategic thinking. Not only does this thinking need to happen early, it must also be built into every phase of the project.  Well before working on technical assessments, regulatory approvals and permits, organizations must consider how they will involve the public.  It’s never been more evident that the public has a seat at the table and organizations need to make them a priority from day one or risk never getting a shovel in the ground.

Rob Mariani is a senior vice-president with Hill+Knowlton Strategies and serves as general manager of their Ottawa offices.

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