Michelle Blicavs, Former CEO, IAP2


Tell us a bit about IAP2…

IAP2 has seven core values that we hold to and promote. The first is a view that those who are going to be impacted by decisions have a right to be involved in the decision-making process. When we’re talking about greenfield sites, the argument isn’t new and comes down to ‘there’s nobody yet to be impacted’. I would disagree with that and say that there is something surrounding and therefore any community that surrounds wherever that greenfield site  will be essentially impacted, and if you think about council areas, the broader council region as a whole should have a stake.

We know historically speaking that green-field sites have huge implications on traffic, resources, infrastructure etc. In the visioning stage, you deal with the land owners, government bodies and local councils, but what about the communities that surround that area? How much of a say do they get around what potential services they may choose to use. Nobody only stays within their own community, we all travel to other areas to use services. So I think that stretching that participation goal more broadly to include more and varied stakeholders will ultimately produce better communities.

Public participation is simply what it says that it is. It’s about having the public participate in the process, the greater problem comes down to determining who is that public. What is community? Stakeholders?…we have different definitions for each. Each group needs to be worked with in a different manner. Different techniques and different time factors are involved that depend on who you’re working with, because they have different interests.

Often there’s communities with one dominant demographic that we’d like to engage with, but you actually need to work with every different group. Smaller groups may need to be engaged with differently because they come at it from a completely different perspective.

Are there particular ways or any case studies where it points to better practices of engaging very diverse community members?

There is no magic formula, when it comes to public participation. It’s about knowing the community that you’re going to work with, defining the issue or the problem that you’re trying to solve, and what that means within that community setting, because every community will be different. So IAP2 has developed a standard for community and stakeholder engagements. It outlines 11 steps that you need to run a good process. I often say it doesn’t matter what the issue is and it doesn’t matter what the outcome is, it’s actually that process in the middle, that’s the part we focus on. That standard outlines a guiding process for how you might go about engaging the community, regardless of whether you’re in regional Australia or a city… it doesn’t matter where you are, it’s process, from our research and four years of consultation, that works.

We always try to not be prescriptive around what we talk about either. We’re either informing, consulting, involving, collaborating or empowering. And you can move between those, and you don’t have to be moving towards the right hand side of the spectrum, the ‘how’. It’s okay to consult, it’s okay to inform but the point is determining where that fits in with your overall engagement process. For us, we would rather see a focus on the core values because they’re the key concepts, not the spectrum.

But to us, a very important part is the ‘why’, and, the ‘what. When you get to a regular consultation process, people say, okay we need to engage and they haven’t done the previous six or seven steps we have in our process to determine who all the stakeholders are. What’s the actual issue here? What’s the complexity around it? What’s the history? What’s the purpose of what we’re doing? Do we have the leadership sold on this? If we spend a little bit longer planning the process, we would actually get the right sort of method for the situation rather than just falling back on the old favourite methods that may not be relevant.

In green-field sites when you’re talking about placemaking somewhere that’s completely new, there is a unique opportunity to involve a much broader group in the community to help come up with a solution rather than just planners or designers who might just sit around in a room. “Oh we should do this, this’ll be really cool.” And that may actually be the outcome that you get but you’re going to get greater ownership by the actual community that will live there.

We try to encourage companies, groups, governments, to run a good engagement process before they start delivering a project, and engage early. Otherwise we often find out after the fact that people disagree with the outcome once it’s blowing up in the media, or there’s outrage happening… That’s when we hear about it and usually it’s too late. So my main role and my main advocacy is to encourage people to do it before they start any project, and that’s where we put our target energy.

Would IAP2 actually be involved in the process?

No, we’re the association, so our members are the ones who could come in and establish the right processes for you. We train people and teach people how to run good processes, we advocate for better process.  Our mission is to advance the practice of public participation.

If you’ve started with a strong vision and diverse group of stakeholders, how do you ensure that this process carries that through?

Transitions where people come and go make it very difficult. There’s very few long term projects that have good solid process all the way through them, from beginning to end.

We’ve developed a new community engagement model where we talk about who’s leading the engagement and whose acting upon the engagement. Traditionally it was often the organisation leading the engagement, however what’s happening more and more is communities are leading the engagement and expecting organisations to act in a different way. Then in the middle, sometimes you get this shared leadership/shared action. I would think that a new subdivision is an example that would be that shared leadership /shared action and you’d want to keep that going for the years throughout the development. The Greenway Project in NSW wanted a cycle path to go all the way through the city along the freeway and so they started advocating for it and eventually they got some political backing, then the organisations took over. Then they got the community back involved, volunteerism, different advisory groups… so it kind of had an ebb and flow throughout its life… it’s a good example of how engagement changes. This is why we talk about the need to evaluate your engagement processes as you go because the engagement will change, people will come and go, communities change, public change, the staff change and so you need to be adaptable and flexible enough to be continually reviewing the process so that you can adapt to make the change to ensure that you’re not forgetting people or leaving people out. The biggest problem that we have, of course, has been the political changes. All of a sudden we’ve been doing this thing, we going full sail ahead, the government changes and the whole thing gets thrown out. That’s very, very damaging for engagement…

These things take time, engagement takes time, when you’re talking about building new growth area development, you know that it’s at least a twenty year plan. So you can go into it with a clear twenty year plan and have your review points and at different points along the process you might engage differently, with different people.

How do you find the appropriate voice to represent different voices of the community?

You can if you run the right process, that’s the problem with being prescriptive about it, you have to identify very clearly, who are the stakeholders, and who do you need to engage with, and obviously if you’re talking about Melbourne or somewhere like that, you can’t engage with all of Melbourne.

That’s why the psychoanalysis piece is critical before you determine how you’ll engage with them. So the method that you’re going to choose for the engagement, needs to be based on who the stakeholders are and the purpose of what you’re trying to do.

There’s a sequencing to engagement. If you really think at the end of the day you want a working panel of ten to fifteen people, you need to figure out how you’re going to get to that point.

Developers need to come out and clearly say we have just bought these properties, we’re looking at building a new community here, we’d love to have your input to do that. You’ll either get interest or you won’t, but at least they can go back at the end of the day and say, “we started trying to include the community, but nobody put their hand up…we tried.”

If you could change one thing about the way we currently create communities what would it be?

Develop the engagement plan early, and include as many diverse stakeholders and communities in that plan before you make or mention any decisions.





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