For most infrastructure projects, the government is the client or major project sponsor. This means that they set the stakeholder expectations, from when and where it would like to receive information, to how projects should be positioned to be relevant to them.
The government also dictates the level of involvement and consultation expected, and how much influence stakeholders should have over a project from planning to operations.
And since it is often a company or contractor in the private sector that delivers the infrastructure project, it is important that the government works hand-in-glove with the private sector to manage expectations on projects, manage risks, and ensure the project can be delivered profitably in a manner providing the greatest community benefit.
This means project communications should be built around realistic expectations that stakeholders understand and can follow as the project progresses.
Start with a vision
Governments are often under pressure to make announcements or fulfil the needs of the election cycle, so take a step back and focus infrastructure projects on the long term. Set a project vision. Make sure people understand what the project is, why it’s being considered and what it might involve in terms of resources such as time and money, but also the public’s patience.
There have been some great examples, such as the work done by the Greater Sydney Commission in NSW, which has foreseen growth in the metropolis. Its portfolio of projects has an overall vision for development and infrastructure in additional CBD locations. Because they form part of a broader, overarching strategy, when it comes to funding projects such as Light Rail Stages 1 and 2, these flow from the original vision and are more easily accepted by the public.
Once a vision has been set, take control of the narrative and understand how it is positioned according to the different types of stakeholders across the community, and at a higher project level.
Make sure there are clear advocates. Find out who to talk to and attain buy-in to build momentum from someone who has positive influence. Investment may be needed in extra consultation or involvement from people on the negotiable project elements to tip the scales, but the more people who support and advocate for the project, the better chance there is of the project attain social licence to deliver with fewer obstacles.
Be careful about how the wider community is involved. While it’s great to have transparency, it’s not always valuable to have a project run by a committee with the entire public as participant stakeholders! Set the terms for how much say and involvement the community will actually have in the project outcomes. Be honest about what’s negotiable. If the project decisions will be made by the smartest people in the room with a small amount of consultation, that may be the best and smartest solution.
Sometimes governments feel the pressure to accommodate all views in relation to projects, but there are some interesting changes being made in relation to how stakeholder preferences are prioritised during major infrastructure projects. It’s important that governments actively involve the community and build them into the whole process, but the government also needs to be confident and clear about what the stakeholders are able to do, when their input is needed, and the expected level of value they offer.
On the other hand, there might be a project where a vast amount of community feedback will lead to acceptance, buy-in, and better outcomes. In that case, get them on board early and make that happen. When people are asked and are able to get involved, they move towards advocacy: they start to fall in line with the project because they’ve been involved in it historically.
Establish clear communication lines
Run consultation clearly and collaboratively. To co-create something, let people run those sessions in a way that it’s clear what you’re asking, where the information will go, how it will influence the process, and when you’ll come back to them. Be clear and be consistent. Be realistic about what people can influence and avoid creating a situation where the promise outweighs the reality of what can be delivered – that’s when poorly-managed expectations will affect the process later on.
It’s also important to employ a broad spectrum of communication channels. Communicate in many ways, in many places, over and over again. People need information presented to them at least seven times before they really hear or see it. It’s not enough to work hard on one item and one message and only get it out via one means, hoping that people heed it. Gone are the days of the rotting newsletter on the footpath – people are communicating online, on social media, with content tailored to their interests, so tapping into those interests is essential.
Find out where people get their information from and leverage those influential voices to set the right expectations. Consider that people go into certain trusted community-based sources and rely on people’s influence for their opinions. This will help to set the agenda and show you what information to provide via what channels.
Second to finding and opening communication channels is setting a rhythm for the release of information. Sometimes the challenge is that people expect information constantly. Governments feel accountable and this increases pressure to give over something, so create realistic expectations around when people should expect further news or information.
The key to the successful management of expectations is being proactive. As long as you know who you should be talking to, about what and when, you can then proceed with confidence and set the agenda. Once you’ve opened the dialogue with the right people, it takes less effort to create advocates and better manage stakeholder expectations all round. And this is a big win.
Julie Castle is the managing director of Struber
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