SA infrastructure visions require a real dialogue
INFRASTRUCTURE development has long been associated with economic growth. As a developing country, South Africa has recognised the importance of infrastructure development not only for its economic potential, but also for its role in improving peoples’ lives and social situations.
Yet, while infrastructure development projects are conceptualised and designed with the public in mind, thinking about what communities want and need is no longer enough. Project managers need to make sure that what they assume the public wants is what they actually need – and the only way to do this is to ask.
The role that stakeholder buy-in plays in the success or failure of development projects in the country is becoming more and more evident as public interest in the outcomes and impact of development and infrastructure projects grows.
This means that before project managers and engineers begin to think about the design, engineering and implementation of their possible projects, they first need to consider and plan their stakeholder engagement and consultation processes.
Role of stakeholder consultation in infrastructure development projects. A lack of consultation, community exclusion and an unwillingness to take the inputs from the public into account can have serious long-term negative impacts at an economic, environmental, social, and reputational level.
Past experience has shown that a more informed and educated public is beginning to expect and demand transparent consultation processes that encourage two-way communications and allow communities to be involved in project decision making.
Affected stakeholders want to be provided with a clear outline of the project before it begins so that any issues and concerns can be raised and rectified before construction commences.
As such, if positive dialogue and participatory decision-making is practised from the outset of a project’s conceptualisation, community members and other stakeholders will feel empowered to raise their concerns.
Lessons learnt for future consultation and development project success in the country. The International Association for Public Participation outlines several values that need to be considered in order for consultation to be effective: stakeholders need to have an input in decisions, participation or consultation needs to ensure all of the information is available that is needed to participate in a meaningful way, and stakeholders have to know how their inputs have affected the decisions that were made.
Speaking from experience with projects that have succeeded in their stakeholder consultation endeavours and those that failed miserably, there are four things I believe need to be understood to facilitate successful stakeholder consultation.
1. Plan The planning stage of any infrastructure development process has to involve planning for stakeholder consultation.
Before the project begins, project managers need to identify stakeholders who will be affected by or affect the project, determine if there are any key issues that have to be addressed, and decide if there are any regulatory requirements related to the infrastructure project.
2. Follow best practice Best practices are called best practices for a reason – they highlight what good consultation processes looks like.
Although a number of best practices exist, project managers working on infrastructure developments in South Africa should remember that consultation has to be targeted at specific stakeholders.
Early: Culturally meaningful and localised (ie sensitive to cultural norms, language, etc).
Two-way: Gender-inclusive – men and women may have different ideas or needs when it comes to development.
Transparent and documented.
3. Be genuine Many stakeholder consultation processes are embarked on as a simple “ticking the box” exercise.
These types of consultations do not involve true participatory decision-making and are largely ineffective.
Before consultation begins, project managers need to be committed to engage in genuine dialogue with stakeholders.
This means that community inputs and views must be taken seriously and considered when decisions are made related to project designs.
While it may not be possible to address all the issues or demands of the communities, project managers need to be open to making changes to the project based on feedback.
4. Consultation is an ongoing process.
Project managers need to consider the fact that consultation is not a one-off activity or obligation, but rather an ongoing process that should continue throughout the lifecycle of a project.
Ongoing consultation helps project managers to keep track of stakeholder views and expectations on infrastructure development projects over time.
If infrastructure development is supposed to be improving the lives of the people we have to make sure that we are focused on talking to, listening to and responding to the needs of the people.
Ultimately, it’s all about obtaining a “social licence to operate.”
True participatory decisionmaking consultation requires project managers to be committed to engage in genuine dialogue with stakeholders.
Siphiwo Michael Mxhosa is the Stakeholder Relations Manager at the SA National Road Agency (Sanral).