2 minutes
Kelli Bernard

People around the world say they feel excluded from discussions and decisions around their infrastructure services. They want more involvement in the whole process.

According to stakeholder engagement champion Kelli Bernard, to shape future networks and systems, and ensure that major infrastructure projects get delivered on time and on budget, it is essential to work in partnership with your local community.


When it comes to discussions about infrastructure services, communities are feeling left out. According to the latest research in our Future of Infrastructure report, almost half the survey respondents of 10 major cities around the world said they had no opportunity to provide feedback to public transport providers on a whole range of issues from planning and pricing to schedules and sustainability. It is not surprising then, that people say that many infrastructure services fail to meet their needs and expectations.

The good news is that a growing proportion of those involved with the planning and provision of infrastructure assets and services want to better engage with their customers. And there are many new tools and forums for improved collaboration.

Genuine stakeholder engagement and management are arguably the most important ingredients for successful project delivery. Time and time again, the long-term success of a project has been positively influenced by a proactive and inclusive approach. And yet, stakeholder engagement has often been regarded as a ‘check-the-box’ activity, with little or no investment or attention paid to it. There have been instances where the community is classified as a risk, and negative attitudes have become a costly obstacle to project delivery. In addition, where the conversation has been handled badly, communities become unresponsive or adversarial due to their perception that project champions are not listening and that their feedback will not be considered.

Thankfully, much has been learned from past mistakes and we are seeing impressive examples of best practice all around the world. One of the keys to success is for infrastructure professionals, public and private, to get closer to their communities, to understand people’s concerns and aspirations, and to transform potential adversaries into advocates and ambassadors.

Drawing on recent experience, here are our suggestions for improved collaboration and project outcomes:

Five steps to working closer with communities

  1. Be genuine — Build trust and stakeholder buy-in by seeking input on what can (or will) be considered by the project team. Only ask questions on topics where you want to hear opinions – people will stop engaging if they think you aren’t listening. And be aware that some communities may have bad experiences of engagement that have left them wary. So it’s important to do your community history homework. Every major infrastructure project has detractors, and they may not get the results they desire, but people appreciate truthfulness and will be more apt to consider the project team’s perspective if they have an opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue. Regularly reporting back what you have heard and how this feedback is helping shape proposals will help keep people on board.
  2. Be timely — Know your audience and plan carefully for when best to engage them; it may be earlier than you think and should ideally be before major decisions have been reached. It is not about informing the community, but rather consulting and involving them. Decision makers must allow space for stakeholder input to inform the program/development. Policy makers should engage stakeholders before all decisions have been made or plans finalized. Link engagement opportunities directly to project milestones so that input to goal setting, planning direction, technical and financial analysis and decision making is captured to keep the project moving forward. Be willing and prepared to follow up often. And remember that some stakeholders may need more time than others to engage, and will require additional opportunities to provide feedback.
  3. Be inclusive — While inclusivity is a requirement in most major infrastructure projects around the world, it’s always worth considering how to extend the possibilities. Go to where your stakeholders are, and speak their language. Engage broadly by providing many different ways to learn about or be involved in the project. Respect people’s time by offering quick and easy ways to participate online, as well as more involved, hands-on meetings. Help people understand the proposals and issues using plain language and engaging visuals.
  4. Be innovative —Grab people’s attention. Share your project’s story in visually interesting ways, and make your collaborations engaging. Cycling and walking tours, pop-up consultations, online interactive surveys and maps, and virtual reality simulations and gaming experiences are great ways to gather insights. And getting the word out does not require the saome old humdrum approach — educational and fun videos, infographics, inviting displays, eye-catching notices and original artwork go a long way to enticing a diverse audience to get and stay involved.
  5. Be committed — You’re in it for the long haul. Rarely during large infrastructure developments is the need for stakeholder consultation and involvement short lived. Ensure you have a flexible plan and the resources to stay with the project throughout. Regularly measuring the effectiveness of engagement will make it possible to fine-tune your approach and gain the support needed to progress your project.

Upgrade at Merimbula Sewage Treatment Plant, New South Wales, Australia


In an ongoing project on Australia’s east coast, the New South Wales Environment Protection Authority has advised that the existing beach-face outfall and dunal exfiltration ponds at Merimbula Sewage Treatment Plant are not sustainable. The proposed solution is for a deep ocean outfall and upgrade of the treatment plant. The community has a strong objection to an ocean outfall and does not trust its local council’s explanations of how and why an alternative is not possible. 

Our engagement team is working with the local Bega Valley Shire Council to address this challenge. The community wants 100 percent irrigation reuse rather than disposing effluent into the environment. A key communication challenge is explaining how and why 100 percent irrigation reuse is not possible. Not only are there land and demand constraints that prevent expansion of reuse, disposal is always needed at any sewage treatment plant. Overcoming misinformation and communicating this complex topic to a large audience has required a comprehensive communication and engagement program. This program includes: in-depth briefing sessions with key stakeholders focusing on their specific concerns; information sessions for community members to have one-on-one conversations with the project team; and print and digital updates. 

We also set up a community working group (CWG) of community members who reflect the demographic characteristics of the area. Through a process called ‘deliberative multi-criteria assessment’ — a decision-making process for CWGs to understand the problem, evaluate potential solutions and select a preferred option — the CWG will investigate, assess and analyze proposed options for the plant upgrade and ocean outfall. The CWG’s recommendation will be presented to the council for consideration and be made public — this means the wider community will know the group’s recommendation. This approach is designed to build greater trust and understanding between the council and the community.

Together with the community work, AECOM is developing a concept design and environmental assessment for a deep ocean outfall and upgrade of the sewage treatment plant. The successful delivery of this phase will help to fast track the delivery of the project.

ION Rapid Transit, Waterloo Region, Canada


Helping to improve quality of life, the environment and community connectivity, the new rapid transit system for Waterloo Region in Ontario, Canada, has been an epic undertaking. Called ION, it involves 12 miles (19 kilometers) of track through two urban centers and required upgrading or relocating more than 35 miles (56km) of underground utilities (i.e. storm, sewer and water.) On opening this year (2019), the system will provide invaluable links between important landmarks including a university, hospital, two city halls, a central station, and sporting hubs. It also helps provide a framework for new, compact urban development.

Work on this extensive and complex project inevitably had an impact on daily life and community support was crucial to facilitating local understanding of the process and benefits. Our community relations team, working for GrandLinq Contractors, was charged with leading communication, community engagement and issues management for the design and construction. Working alongside GrandLinq and the Region of Waterloo, this project has been incredibly varied, including developing a powerful brand and website to provide the community with updates, plus plenty of easy-to-follow communication materials comprising construction updates, social media posts and videos to help get the word out. In addition, big milestone moments were celebrated with the community and strong relationships were forged with local elected officials and the media.

While there have been many challenges along the way, it’s a mark of success that the local business improvement area (BIA) has praise for the stakeholder engagement approach, particularly in listening to the business community and the provision of timely and transparent information. “Although construction is never easy or without its toll, this team’s presence helped our businesses feel heard, understood and engaged,” said Patti Brooks, Executive Director (Past), UpTown Waterloo BIA. 

A303 Stonehenge Upgrade


It is rare, indeed, to create new structures within a World Heritage Site (WHS). So, sensitive handling is required for the new twin-bored tunnel proposed to pass by the WHS-listed Neolithic Stonehenge monument in the UK. The two-mile (3.3-kilometer) underground tunnel is proposed to replace a busy highway that runs close by the monument. The benefits are to remove the intrusion of traffic and help conserve and enhance the historic site while also providing a positive legacy for nearby communities. 

The project has a broad range of stakeholders with very different views on the proposed scheme. Our engagement work supported the design process by embracing the views of local landowners and residents, the local authority, statutory stakeholders, heritage and archaeological specialists, road users, and people involved in the local tourist industry. There were two key areas of activity; one involved substantial proactive engagement with directly affected landowners, statutory stakeholders, heritage and environmental interest groups and the local community to help inform ongoing design development. The second was delivery of statutory consultation and subsequent supplementary consultation to seek formal feedback on proposals prior to their finalization and submission for development consent.

Methods of engagement included establishing a series of working groups to focus on key technical issues (e.g. a Heritage Monitoring Advisory Group was established to provide critical input around design and archaeological surveys and methodologies for the environment and heritage impact assessments). Along with this were weekly multidisciplinary workshops to encourage direct conversation between design engineers, environmental specialists and key stakeholders; creation of a local community forum to provide local residents with a direct link to the project team; one-to-one meetings with directly affected landowners; and officer and councillor briefing sessions. This collaborative working has been fundamental to the identification of several critical environmental solutions, which significantly reduce project risk.        

In addition to stakeholder engagement services, AECOM (leading the AECOM Mace WSP Alliance) is providing engineering design, environmental services and procurement support. 

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