The following is the fourth in a series of columns highlighting the importance of putting the public at the heart of communications strategies. This column focuses on the opportunity for both government and businesses to bring the public into the development of public infrastructure.

Public infrastructure is a broad term used to describe various types of projects built for the public benefit or owned and operated by the public sector. The nature of the projects can range from transportation infrastructure (roads, railways, or airports) to social infrastructure (housing, hospitals and schools) to energy infrastructure (power grids and pipelines).

Some public infrastructure projects enjoy broad consensus, insofar as a majority of the communities and citizens directly impacted by the project are largely supportive. Other projects can be far more contentious. In those cases, communities and citizens opposing the project, or divided on its merits, pose a significant barrier to shovels going in the ground.

The biggest obstacle to the construction of public infrastructure isn’t a shortage of money, steel, cement, or labour – it’s the absence of public acceptance. If there isn’t public acceptance of a project, democratic governments often lose their political will. And, if there’s no will there’s no way. Put another way, you can’t have public infrastructure without the public.

There are numerous examples, past and present, where governments simply make a public announcement that a particular project is going ahead – allocating funds and expropriating land as needed. Essentially communicating their intentions after the deal was signed. They didn’t try to secure public acceptance, most likely because they didn’t think they needed it.

Even when governments and businesses consult the public on infrastructure projects, it is primarily a listening exercise. Converting public feedback into action is challenging and costly. As a result, these listening exercises often result in little change, leading to public frustration and distrust. These consultations are a step forward, but, perhaps, only a half-step.

But why is it so challenging and costly? Simply put most consultations occur after major decisions have already been made, making it difficult to go back in the design process. Moreover, participants are not given enough information to provide useful input. In order to garner public acceptance, and capture the collective public wisdom, more time must be spent on bringing participants ‘up to speed’ on a given project, allowing them to deliberate and contribute ideas in a timely manner.

There is clearly a need for a new approach – a new playbook – to gain public acceptance. That playbook must be based on a collaborative approach to public engagement: Involving the public early in the process; Identifying areas in which the public can influence and shape the outcome; and Informing the public so that they can make meaningful contributions.

An engagement approach based on collaboration will lead to ‘co-created’ solutions that while not immune to public pushback, will be much more resistant to opposition. Undertaking this type of public engagement is certainly no small commitment, however it is one that could have a significant return on investment considering the potential cost of not doing so.

Rob Mariani is a Senior Vice President with Hill+Knowlton Strategies, and serves as General Manager of their Ottawa Offices

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