How to avoid stakeholder mistakes in light of Queensland’s hydro project communication problems.
In October, the Queensland Government came under fire for announcing plans for a five-gigawatt pumped hydro project in the Pioneer Valley, west of Mackay.
This was the first time residents in this pristine part of north Queensland had heard of the proposed Pioneer-Burdekin pumped hydro project, with many finding out on “live television” that their land would soon be flooded and transformed into a reservoir.
While Mackay Mayor Greg Williamson, who himself only found out about the proposal earlier in the month, said the hydro project was far from a “done deal”, a key source of the uproar was the lack of consultation before the project was announced.
Yuwi traditional land owners also accused the government of “breaching protocol” through lack of consultation. As native title holders of parts of the project area, their consent must be sought before plans go ahead.
To avoid controversy in future large infrastructure projects, two experts on ethical stakeholder consultation explain how it’s done.
Principles of ethical stakeholder consultation
When it comes to engaging stakeholders, there are key principles engineers should abide by, says Nick Stanton FIEAust CPEng, Director of I2I Collaborative Executive Solutions.
First things first — it’s critical to always act with integrity.
“Make sure there’s honesty to your information. Don’t just tell [people] part of the story or what they want to hear,” he says.
Should the consultation process go awry, stakeholders have the power to cause project delays and expensive legal challenges – taking costs in a whole new direction.
“It boils down to [the fact that] it could have been avoided or mitigated with integrity in your communications,” says Stanton, who also leads a microcredential on stakeholder management for Engineers Australia.
Maintaining trust is another important aspect, which includes ensuring promises are kept.
“I’ve seen people make promises [without] considering the full ramifications when they made the promise,” he says.
Later on, when it comes out the promise can’t be achieved or afforded, the damage to trust can be irreparable.
“It certainly drives time, costs, and often scheduling delays,” says Stanton. “In an ethical sense, if you don’t honour this duty, you’re going to run into real problems later on.”
If promises can’t be fulfilled, Stanton recommends full transparency.
“When something unexpected occurs, [explain] ‘this is the situation we’ve found ourselves in. A risk has eventuated, and we have to do something about it’.”
Acknowledging all stakeholders are worthy of respect, however, is the most important principle.
“Yes, you’re a highly educated and experienced engineer, but you need to listen to the people who live there and are going to be affected by the consequences of your actions,” he says.
Communicating with stakeholders
When communicating with stakeholders, it’s important to keep in mind that they might read and receive information differently.
“You have to meet them on their terms,” says Stanton. “Avoid jargon, factor in that it’s going to take a while to work through issues, and let them have their own discussions.”
Different stakeholders also require consultation at various parts of a project. For example, the stakeholders whose interests are pivotal, such as traditional land owners, should be involved right at the start and throughout the entire process.
How consultations are conducted also morphs as plans progress. Once you have “permission” to commence a project, the focus shifts from “can we do this” to “how are we doing this”. When the project winds up, the duty to stakeholders continues, says Stanton.
“In the sustainment part of a project, you should ask, ‘Do you have any further concerns we can help with?’”
A clash of interests
Working with stakeholders doesn’t mean there won’t be discordance. Everyone has their own agenda, reminds Stanton, whether good, bad or indifferent.
“Whatever it is, you have to understand, appreciate and respect that this is important, then negotiate in an appropriate style how you’re going to resolve or address any concerns or interests.”
A hydro plant like Pioneer-Burdekin might take a step forward in terms of renewable energy generation, but that doesn’t mean everyone will support it.
“Get the issues back down to what’s really close to them as opposed to talking about the bigger element to it,” says Stanton.
Remember, consultation doesn’t mean consensus. While you can’t make everyone happy, you can at least make people feel like they have been part of the process.
“Ensure stakeholders are heard and the issues were addressed as far as they possibly could be,” he says.
“Engineers have a duty to act with integrity, keep people informed, and act in a sustainable manner.”
Consulting traditional land owners
Ensuring traditional land owners have a seat at the table means engaging with them at the start of the project and maintaining contact all the way through, says University of South Australia professor Deanne Hanchant-Nichols, co-author of the paper A Right Way, Wrong Way and Better Way for Energy Engineers to Work with Aboriginal Communities.
The first step is to find out who the native title holders are in the area or the Aboriginal organisations that have a vested interest.
Consultations should be face-to-face and could also involve site visits, with timelines that suit all stakeholders. Negotiation is key.
In an area that has significant sites such as burial sites, it’s also worthwhile contacting the local council to see what’s listed on the Heritage Register, along with the Aboriginal Heritage Register, or similar organisation, in your project location.
Wider environmental changes to accommodate new roads and infrastructure should also be factored in.
“Think about the native flora and fauna in the area, and how disrupting it may also have a flow on effect to traditional custodians,” says Hanchant-Nichols.
Consider working with a consultant
Consultations with traditional land owners might involve more than one meeting, says Hanchant-Nichols, who recommends building funding for these consultations into project plans.
“That’s another [consideration] around ethical operating, so you’re not just going in, grabbing information and walking out again,” she adds.
Having a paid cultural consultant on-site during the initial planning can make working around significant sites easier and help to avoid scheduling delays. When plans change, a cultural consultant can also facilitate the process of keeping the community informed.
“They are a conduit between the organisation you’re working for and the Aboriginal community,” says Hanchant-Nichols.
Giving back to the community
When working on a large infrastructure project, it’s crucial to consider how to give back to the community. Hanchant-Nichols cites an example of a student challenge through not-for-profit company Engineers Without Borders (EWB) – when both infrastructure and wider community needs were met.
The EWB project was focused on implementing road and drainage infrastructure in the Aboriginal town of Yalata, situated at the head of the Great Australian Bight. After speaking with the community, the team identified the town was missing a much-needed community centre.
“They needed a space to bring the community together to hold meetings and cultural activities, so that was also factored into [funding for] those major works,” she says.
While a community centre was the right approach in this instance, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.
“Speak to the community,” she says. “They might [need] scholarships for young people or [funding] for training.”
As a final tip, Hanchant-Nichols says it’s important to be aware of your own biases and understand that despite your best efforts, the process may not go smoothly.
“But if you’ve got that communication line and you keep it open, that’s your way of working with the community and acting ethically to keep people in the loop the whole way through.”
Stanton says Australia needs new projects, particularly in renewables, but care must be taken not to make the same mistakes with stakeholders that happened in the proposed Pioneer-Burdekin project.
“Engagement with stakeholders is to be embraced not avoided,” he says.