After decades of accumulated shortfall in public infrastructure investment, governments are initiating numerous projects to respond to pressing needs in today’s cities and communities. This is good news for Canadians, for the country’s economy and for future generations. But this promising new era for the Canadian infrastructure sector is unlikely to resemble the previous “Golden Age” that followed the Second World War.
Gone are the times when governments had the latitude to finance projects on their own. They must now rely on multiple partners and investors who are very sensitive to risk exposure. For environmental, safety and social considerations, governments are also asking proponents to comply with a stringent and lengthy regulatory framework. As a consequence, projects become more complex and riskier. The delivery of largescale infrastructure projects often spans over multiple elections, requiring continued political support, especially with the possibility of a change of guards.
Last but not least, a growing number of vocal interest groups and local citizens expect to be consulted in all matters and want to take part in the the decisions that affect them or their constituents. Unheard of a few years ago, the concept of “social acceptance” is now entering the decision makers’ lexicon, as sustainable development did in the late ‘80s. In many jurisdictions, the level of social acceptance has become a prime consideration in the authorization of projects. All in all, the landscape of infrastructure projects has changed dramatically over the last few decades. Proponents must now deal with a wide range of stakeholders asserting diverse interests and often expressing competing views. Many of them have the capacity of joining forces and influencing the course of projects, sometimes in unpredictable and unpleasant ways.
For this reason, a comprehensive risk management plan for an infrastructure project must now include a robust stakeholder analysis and engagement strategy that considers all the important audiences, including governments, communities, businesses and even the ultimate end-users.
Such a strategy requires a deep understanding of the social and political environment of where the infrastructure is to be built. The implementation of the engagement strategy will connect the project team with key stakeholders and supporters, encourage reliable communications and open dialogue, address the diversity needs and interests, correct misconceptions, manage expectations and ensure crisis readiness. The result will translate into public and political support, greater certainty, and, ultimately, in building trust relationships.
To design and implement such a strategy, an additional member must be brought into the core project team: the strategic communication and engagement specialist. This professional brings to the table a perspective, an expertise and a know-how, complementary to those of the project manager, the engineer, the designer, the legal advisor, the business analyst and the various technical experts traditionally involved in infrastructure projects.
Working jointly with these experts, as early as possible in the process, the strategic communication and engagement specialist will help anticipate and manage social and political challenges that inevitably occur over the project life cycle, and greatly impact its success.