A common misconception, often perpetuated by Hollywood, is key business recommendations are first mentioned at a large meeting and the senior executives, who are empowered to make final decisions, are there. Ideally, sound recommendations eventually make it to this forum but only after they’ve been discussed and refined among a few individuals.
The person who conceives the recommendation will likely first broach it to a trusted few in their inner circle. Through these preliminary conversations, they hone advocates or make adjustments to alleviate detractors’ concerns and potentially bring them on side. These early ‘in-the-know’ contacts may even broker introductions to other experts, who can provide input to strengthen the recommendation, sometimes without knowing its full context. With this foundation laid, there are fewer surprises and the recommendation is more likely to win approval.
The Public Inner Circle of Infrastructure
This same principle is often applied to public/external consultations when an infrastructure project – from a pump station to a nuclear waste repository — needs public input and approval to succeed. The difference is the inner circle is formally established as a volunteer advisory or liaison committee, made up of community members, who are formally recruited to join it.
In some cases, an organization is mandated to form a ‘community liaison committee’ as part of its licence to build or operate a facility. In other instances, the organization voluntarily forms a committee to ensure a good cross-section of the public or those with technical, environmental or other expertise are effectively engaged.
For example, the Portlands Energy Centre relies on its volunteer Community Ecological Committee to inform its ecological sustainability strategy. With this committee’s input, it’s: pursued experimental planting and landscaping to revitalize its site; created habitat for local fauna, including an on-site urban aviary; and partnered with post-secondary students on research initiatives.
The Power of Like-Minded Focus
Each committee’s members bring a range of know-how relevant to the project and may represent a community association, a local business or institution, special interest group. The common thread is each member has a personal or professional interest in staying informed, asking questions and providing suggestions, as the project evolves.
These volunteers may have less professional expertise than the project team’s members but this is offset by their invaluable knowledge of the community, its needs, values, trusted alliances and experience.
Facilitation and Other Tools Make it Work
These public committees meet at regular intervals with project owners, from a corporation, municipality or organization sponsoring the project. At these meetings, members provide input and serve as a ‘bridge’ to the community. A third-party facilitator, such as HSAL, is often brought in to establish the committee, define its purpose, develop the terms of reference and institute protocols to ensure meetings run smoothly and the group’s meets its mandate.
At HSAL, we often recommend and facilitate volunteer committees to advance better project decision-making about infrastructure projects. Why? Because we know from experience that volunteer committees are one of the most effective methods for ensuring infrastructure projects get built on time, on budget and with public accolades.
Contact us if you would like to learn how we can support your communications and public consultation needs.
Leslie Hetherington is an Associate at Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited. She is an award-winning, Accredited PR Practitioner (APR) and a past president of the Toronto chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators. Leslie’s project experience includes integrated communications planning and implementation through traditional and online channels for diverse mandates, from managing reputations to stimulating economic development in Canada’s North. Skills include stakeholder and media relations, social media marketing, website development, event management and copy writing.