According to one UNSW expert, our education system hasn’t equipped engineers with some critical skills. He’s created a course to fix the problem by upskilling engineers to run community consultations effectively.
In his role as the Deputy Head of School (Research) at the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of New South Wales, Professor Matthew Kearnes teaches the key principles of community engagement to students from a range of disciplines.
Over the years, he’s heard engineers, in particular, speak of having a knowledge gap in the area of community engagement.
“Engineers often find themselves increasingly responsible for talking to the public and assessing community needs. The message I was hearing was that their engineering education hasn’t equipped these engineers with the skills to do that consultation with confidence,” said Kearnes.
“As a result, it’s often quite confronting for some engineers to be tasked with running a consultation process or turning up at a town hall meeting.”
Observing this need inspired Kearnes to develop a course for engineers involved with community engagement, particularly in environmental science.
The short course, which is being offered through the Australian Graduate School of Engineering, is aimed at postgraduate engineers and will commence this October.
“Increasingly, engineers are consulting with, or hearing from, members of the public about various projects. There’s also growing expectation within the profession for engineers to interact with the community,” Kearnes said.
Dialling down the temperature
Without receiving education on community engagement, it can be confronting for professionals to run a community consultation or town hall meeting. They often feel like they’ve been thrown in the deep end.
“This course aims to provide engineers with some orienting concepts to build their confidence and skills when consulting with the community,” said Kearnes.
“It will cover basic concepts of public engagement such as: What is the purpose of community consultation? What does it aim to achieve? What are its limitations? What are the pitfalls we need to consider?
“I want to introduce students to social science methodologies that can be applied in community consultation. There are a lot of sensitives around how to facilitate a focus group and how to get a representative sample of the community you’re trying to reach.”
Managing the dynamics of community consultation
Community consultation can elicit a range of opinions. At times, it can even be a platform for hot-headed debate.
“If you go to a community meeting and people are shouting about a new high-rise development, what should you do? Or when an engineer has a vocal community member ringing them up to voice their concerns, how should you respond to that?,” Kearnes asked.
“It can be very overwhelming for people to be confronted with hostile scenes. I want to provide engineers with an understanding of why these dynamics emerge and how to respond to them.”
In Kearnes’s view, heated debate and emotions often surface at community meetings because the consultation process hasn’t been conducted properly.
“Often what you hear from community members is that they feel the ‘consultation’ is being held to explain a design that’s already been reached. They have the sense that the engineer is going to push ahead with a particular decision no matter what the community says,” he said.
“The consultation process is often designed to rubber stamp an outcome. That’s a classic dynamic, and unfortunately, often an accurate one.”
Before hosting a community consultation, take a step back and consider the most appropriate way of describing your meeting, said Kearnes.
“What’s the purpose of the community engagement? If you’re not willing to change anything, then you’re not consulting, you’re telling,” he said.
“If that’s the case, hold an information session. But if you want engagement, you need to engage in a dialogue and be able to change something on the basis of that dialogue.”
When facilitating this open dialogue, engineers should also be aware that community members are often well-informed before they enter a town hall meeting.
“A pitfall that many engineers fall into is assuming that there is a naïve public out there who aren’t engaged,” he said.
“But in many cases, the community is already quite energised about projects that impact them directly. Engineers need to approach them with that understanding.”
UNSW Engineering is offering a 10 per cent discount on its newest professional development short course, ‘Community Engagement in Practice’. Enter promotional code AGSE10 when registering to activate the discount.