International Association for Impact Assessment

5 ways to bridge the gap between best community engagement practice and actual project experiences

  • Guest post by Board of Director member Sara Bice

    5 ways to bridge the gap between best community engagement practice and actual project experiences

    5 ways to bridge the gap between best community engagement practice and actual project experiences

    Sara Bice*

    President-Elect, IAIA

    Co-Director, Research Translation, Melbourne School of Government, The University of Melbourne

    Community engagement and impact assessment go hand-in-hand. Our core principles prize informed consultation and human rights. Many IAIA members also subscribe to the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2), striving to deliver the golden experience promised at the far side of the engagement spectrum.

    But any of us who’ve spent time in the field know that the ideal regularly remains just that. And project proponents are bearing the costs. In the past decade in Australia, where I live, we have seen an estimated $20 billion in infrastructure projects delayed indefinitely, mothballed, completed but not as originally intended, or cancelled completely. Many of these delays and cancellations were strongly influenced by community protest and opposition.

    When we know so much about the benefits of good engagement—from experience, research and education—why do we still struggle to achieve best practice engagement?

    Why does community engagement lag other aspects of infrastructure delivery, especially in terms of its integration into all phases of project planning and design?

    There’s so much good information and practice out there, how can we bridge the gap between ideals and practice?

    In Australia, we’ve recently launched an industry-wide conversation about what community engagement means for infrastructure project planning and delivery and what can be done to realise its potential. The Next Generation Engagement project, for which IAIA is a partner, incorporates years of research into stakeholder engagement, impact assessment, social risk and social licence to operate. It represents research perspectives as diverse as urban planning, economics, social science, psychology, engineering and policy science. In the spirit of consultation, the project also reflects deep and challenging conversations with community engagement practitioners, our colleagues at universities across Australia, and the input of peak industry bodies internationally.

    We recently completed a national workshop series in which almost 200 community engagement and infrastructure delivery specialists participated. Offering views from project management, engineering, institutional investment, marketing and communications, community relations and human resources, participants generated rich and informed insights. The workshops were complemented by a national survey that found that ‘stakeholder and community pressure’ was the most impactful contributor to project delays or cancellations.

    Our team has spent the past month drowning in data, debating and generally being absorbed in these questions in an effort to come up with some answers. It’s still early days and there is much more research to be done, but here are five ways that we might start to bridge the gap between community engagement ideals and on-ground practice.

    1. Community engagement becomes more valued by project proponents and policy-makers.

    Community engagement is often valued too little and too late in the project cycle.

    Time and again, our findings show community engagement practitioners brought in as firefighters, not relationship-builders. Our data suggests this occurs largely because, until problems arise, project proponents see community engagement as an unnecessary cost. It is only when problems materialize and developers desire to staunch opposition that the value of community engagement is acknowledged.

    We hypothesize that if community engagement principles and practice were better understood and valued by project proponents and other members of a project team (engineers, project managers, financers), then community engagement practitioners would be encouraged and expected to participate in the earliest stages of project planning. They would have appropriate budgets and resources and an influential seat at the executive table.

    2. Regulation requires best practice community engagement until such time that it is institutionalized.

    Boy, have we debated this one a lot! In certain Australian states, ‘stakeholder engagement’ falls under EIS requirements but even here, it often falls short of best practice. So, does it really help to require community engagement via regulation? Our team ultimately agreed that, until such time that community engagement is better understood and valued, it would be helpful if it were required. A bit like a gender quota system or the early days of occupational health and safety (OHS), community engagement could benefit from requirement until such time that it is better embedded within organizations, policy and regular practice.  

    3. The community engagement sector becomes professionalized.

    Another contentious topic for both the community engagement and IA communities: Would graduate degrees, accreditation or ‘certified’ membership bodies offer greater legitimacy to the practice?

    On the one hand, community engagement and IA are both highly professionalized practices – they require particular skills and experience, have internationally recognized and active membership organizations that shape values, provide best practice guidelines and training and tend to recognize themselves as distinct professional sectors. But the lack of tertiary degrees that concentrate the basics of each practice into a qualification means that practitioners will likely continue to struggle for legitimacy in the eyes of others who benefit from professionalization of their chosen specialties.

    4. We have better measures and understanding of socio-cultural risks.

    A great deal of recent research has focused on social risk measurement, aligned with growing proponent concerns about a social licence to operate (use your IAIA membership to check out the December 2014 IAPA Special Issue on this topic). Participants in our research were consistently adamant: Technical and financial risks will continue to outweigh social considerations until such time as those risks can be more tangibly measured and valued.

    5. Practice-focused organisations like IAIA have a critical role in making the next generation of community engagement a reality.

    Organisations like IAIA provide a vital platform for raising awareness of the challenges and opportunities faced by community engagement practitioners. Through encouraging the sharing of cases and experiences, we can learn more about the status of the sector, pinpoint critical needs and work together to design practice-wide responses.

    Does this wish list ring true in the locations where you practice?

    Do you agree with the five ways we could bridge the gap between best practice and real world experience?

    What can IAIA do to better support IA practitioners on these issues?

    Comment on IAIAConnect, share on LinkedIn (IAIA discussion group), Tweet (@IAimpact) or email us ( We’d love to hear your ideas.

    *With thanks and acknowledgement to the Research Translation team at the Melbourne School of Government for their diligent work on the Next Generation Engagement project.


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