Virtually non-existent until just a few years ago, the concept of “social acceptability” is well on its way to becoming a key condition of implementing any new project in a region. Many people no longer see managers and decision-makers as the only arbiters of public policy. Citizens and special interest groups believe that their consent should now be a deciding factor in whether to move forward with a project that impacts them.
Some people view this as a welcome step towards an increasingly participatory democracy. Others feel the phenomenon reflects an eroding of trust in public institutions and politicians. Regardless, in today’s age of social media and unrestricted access to information, “citizen power” has become a very real thing. Examples of projects that have been stalled, altered or abandoned after failing the social acceptability test are numerous and varied enough to confirm the existence of a strong trend and the effectiveness of grass-roots movements.
As governments prepare to pour massive investments into the renewal of urban infrastructures, the social acceptability aspect of these major projects means that managers and municipal politicians are now being called upon to play a unique role. How can they ensure that projects essential to the growth and development of cities and communities will be carried out in a predictable manner? How can they reduce the financial and political risks for public authorities?
Many examples demonstrate that citizen involvement in a project’s planning and development significantly reduces these uncertainties. It helps identify potential issues, and it provides responses before opposition movements take shape.
This approach sometimes raises concerns among managers and politicians, as it requires dealing with a wide range of interests in a project that no doubt already faces technical and budget constraints. There’s also a fear of raising expectations that are impossible to meet.
For all of these reasons, a successful engagement strategy depends first and foremost on the transmission of intelligible, accurate and credible information to the people directly affected by the project. Transparency is the cornerstone of this communication and the most effective way to understand people’s expectations. It helps prevent the exponential spread of rumours and speculation, which only intensifies with the reach of social media. In doing so, it keeps disinformation and its collateral damage in check.
Experience has also shown that bringing stakeholders into the process as early as possible helps foster a climate conducive to gaining to building support. Caution should nevertheless be exercised: only a rigorous analysis of the situation will result in an engagement strategy adapted to the project itself and the profile of the community involved. The next step is to decide the consultation method, whether in person or online, that will most effectively reach the people affected and then to apply viable solutions to the issues raised about the various phases of the project.
Even if they only partially reflect reality, the controversies reported by the media and the positions of interest groups are often the most visible signs of whether a project is gaining social acceptability. It is therefore important to pay particular attention to influential groups and to deploy communication and engagement strategies with full regard for each of the target audiences, including communities, businesses, end users and all levels of government.
Conflict prevention and resolution methods, such as mediation, can also prove useful in overcoming stalemates. In more complex cases, where the degree of social acceptability is uncertain, having recourse to measurement tools such as surveys may be needed to build a more accurate picture of the level of support among groups directly impacted by the project.
Engaging citizens in this way requires changing how things are done and perhaps even altering the culture within an organization. Municipal directors-general must therefore ensure their project team includes the expertise and specialized resources required to successfully embark on such initiatives.
Finally, citizen engagement must above all serve to support the decision-making process undertaken by politicians, who are accountable to the population and ultimately responsible for authorizing the project. A high level of social acceptability will ensure ongoing political support and the stability needed to carry out infrastructure projects, whose planning and execution tend to span more than one electoral mandate.