We must involve the community in infrastructure decision making
Infrastructure decision making has often led to inefficiency and community distrust.
By David Singleton
We are at a point in time where two major forces are at play, which when combined create a complex set of circumstances within which infrastructure investment decisions are made, or not made.
These two forces – political context and community engagement – are hard to grapple with individually but when combined, become almost beyond the will of man to see a way through it all. Almost.
There is recognition that infrastructure investment is a politically sensitive topic for government. It is also widely agreed there is a greater infrastructure need than governments have financial resources to address. The projects are large and high profile, with significant impacts, which generate much conversation, debate and often disagreement about whether they are the right projects.
Any conversation about rational investment decision-making runs a very real risk of being overtaken by the political context, in that it’s a matter of making choices which invariably open up the potential for one infrastructure project to be favoured by one side of politics.
This has led to an environment where the public doesn’t believe anymore that the decisions that have been made are the best, or have been subject to appropriate assessment to determine that scarce public funds are being allocated optimally.
Taxpayers are frustrated and have become very sensitive to these issues and perhaps have learned that with the frequency of electoral cycles in Australia, if a particular political party is playing to a particular electoral strategy, they can potentially change the outcome by choosing to vote for party A rather than B.
In this sort of environment, the chances of any long term decisions or long term investments being made for the good of current and future generations are very slim.
We have recently seen with the EastWest link in Melbourne and WestConnex in Sydney, that there is a major challenge when it comes to the communities respect for the project selection and decision making process. It’s now very clear that a mobilised community can find ways to influence the decision making and in some instances overturn, through the ballot box, decisions that have been taken.
This is an area we need to find a way to address, otherwise we are unlikely to move forward in the way that we need to, or address the challenges that we need to address in terms of infrastructure we need to build to combat some of the pressures that are bearing down on us – not least from the impacts of a changing climate, flooding, rising seas level, tropical storms etc. All of these events will require us to improve the resilience of our systems, and this will involve investing in infrastructure. And so, we come back to the same challenging situation of ‘which investment?’ and ‘why?’
To answer this, we need to take a different approach.
We need to rebuild community trust; this will not just be a one-project challenge… it could take the life of more than one government.
We have to find a way to involve the community in the process from the very beginning, rather than go to them with the intention to build an X between A and B! In the eyes of the community the latter appears to be a decision that has already been taken.
Involving the community from the outset in project selection etc. is an approach that many people involved in infrastructure provision would find abhorrent. But we are going to have to move to a process that involves the community in the earliest decision making, so they have had a chance to decide whether a project investment is necessary, what kind of investment, where it should go and how it should be implemented.
This is why there are people who are starting to explore collaborative decision making and collaborative democracy, such as the citizen democracy movement in NSW. Also ATSE’s infrastructure forum is exploring how a collaborative decision making model might work, looking at what some of the models might be. The intention is to show that these things can be delivered without it being seen by some to be ‘handing decision making over’ to what could perceived to be an ‘ill informed public’.
The bottom line is the community must be informed and have had an opportunity to shape the outcome.
We have seen that the public can decide to prevent something happening, the electoral results in Victoria and Queensland were an example of just that, where we saw asset privatisation being overturned in Queensland and construction of a major road in Melbourne being overturned.
We have seen how social media is being used to engage the community. We have got to find a methodology that uses the latest communication medium to engage with the community about these sorts of decisions from the outset.
Rather than the community getting involved in opposition, we should encourage them to get involved as a contributor to the planning process.
It’s a big bold step and it’s not likely to find easy support from political parties. It could take years to convince people that the current model needs to be modified, but if we don’t start we will never run the chance of finishing. If we don’t attempt to make this change, we may find we don’t make sensible decisions going forward.