Forming a Social License to Operate

By Andrew Watt • Director – Engagement, Planning, Education + Ageing
• Articles

Good community engagement is fundamental to effective and responsive development.

It gives legitimacy to the project process, ensuring proposed development serves the community it is designed for; and it reduces conflict, harnesses capacity and manages risks from the outset.

In order to be effective, community engagement must build trust and relationships.

But for today’s developers, planners and those working with communities, building trust is harder than ever.

According to the Endelman Trust Barometer, which measures the average annual percentage of trust in NGOs, business, government and media: not one of these societal institutions is trusted by the public.

How can institutions build community trust?

A community-led approach, which shares the responsibility for resolving complex issues with the gamut of community stakeholders, is critical to achieving a social licence to operate.

And this public permission is most sound when attained not just from one demographic, but across the various different groups that make up a society.

Our job in engagement isn’t to get everyone to agree, but to involve everyone in the process.

When we engage broadly with various stakeholders, we ensure feedback is representative.

Engagement is most meaningful when stakeholders are equipped with the information they need to be able to participate, deliberate and contribute effectively. This means building community capacity, and creating as many touchpoints as are required for us to reach them.

Good engagement is also undertaken well before any decisions are made.

At Creating Communities, we believe in involving communities early and informing them strategically during each step of the process.

Effective engagement is carried out in a way that is respectful of all stakeholders and mindful of their need to benefit from the partnership.

Some ways to achieve this include ensuring people’s ideas and contributions are noted as accurately as possible and made available for public scrutiny; and by conducting community participation programs with honesty, integrity and respect for cultural protocols.

The days of ‘design and defend’ are well and truly over. This traditional, paternalistic mode of decision making determines a course of action without prior community consultation, announces the decision to the public and then defends it from the ensuing backlash.

A more positive model of decision making researches and profiles the community affected by development, equips them with information relevant to the decisions required, and then participates with them in a process mutual education and joint problem solving.

This work is central to ascertaining the unique social context necessary to inform development.

Engagement can’t be effective without a strategy responding to the local context and the aims of the development, or when only those with the loudest voice and the most resources are listened to.

When there is no commitment to act on the input and feedback obtained, public participation opportunities become exercises in public relations.

Community engagement subscribes to the idea that better public decisions are made when everyone affected by an issue that impacts their community is part of the decisions that are made around it.

At Creating Communities, the approach we use seeks to not just engage but to help communities to connect so the bonus dividend for them is a stronger social fabric — often the precursor to future community building activities.

It’s about talking less and listening more, and it is integral to the discover element of Creating Communities’ discover, design, deliver model.

You can find out more about this model, and about what we do more broadly here.

Andrew Watt is the Director of Engagement, Planning, Education and Ageing at Creating Communities.