To outline the key lessons from the Powerline Project X and how these continue to influence the Distributor’s community and stakeholder engagement approach and the business’s drive for continuous improvement.
In late 2011 the Distributor experienced a protracted period of community backlash to the initial consultation phase on the Powerline Project X, which aimed to inform the community about the selection of a line route corridor between Point A and Point B. Although four line routes were generated for internal consideration, only line route four was taken to the community as the preferred line route. This triggered a series of events:
- After two contentious public meetings and extensive coverage in the local media, the local Member of Parliament (MP) intervened to sponsor a Community Reference Group (CRG) charged with recommending a line route that would have the least impact on the community. The recruitment of CRG members was completed by an independent consultant (Consultant) nominated by the local MP.
- The CRG commenced its meetings in July 2012, with the Consultant as the facilitator, and 12 community members, including several members of an activist group that had formed to oppose both the specific line route and the project in general.
- The CRG met fortnightly and deliberated for over a year before recommending a line route. During this period the CRG members were thorough in first ascertaining the actual need for the line and then in selecting a line route that they assessed as having the least potential for impact on the community.
- The Distributor’s regional/senior managers gave significant time to the process, attending all CRG meetings, answering questions extensively, and openly sharing project planning reports and other documentation.
- The final recommendation of the CRG was a 2km wide route which required further investigation by the Distributor to determine the exact route within the identified area. This was dependent on technical investigations and more engagement with landowners.
- Following the final outcome from the CRG, changes were made to the Distributor’s security planning criteria that led to the proposed powerline project being deferred indefinitely in 2014.
- Despite the project not going ahead, the process of undertaking an open and transparent line selection, involving internal and external stakeholders, has delivered key lessons for the Distributor and proved invaluable in guiding engagement best practice.
- Following the conclusion of the CRG process, a review was undertaken with internal and external stakeholders. Key objectives of the project review were to:
- Identify what was done initially that raised community concerns.
- Explore what the Distributor did differently during the CRG process.
- Establish whether the creation of a reactive CRG (and the associated community angst) could be avoided in the future.
- Define the key principles underpinning the CRG process to identify the key lessons and how they could be applied to major projects and other areas of the business in the future.
The review identified key lessons and provided a e of specific recommendations.
- Process: The CRG process demonstrated the importance of being transparent and building trust with the community. This experience has supported the development of the Distributor’s community engagement approach today, including the process outlined in their Community Engagement Framework developed with the state government and other electricity entities. The Framework provides guidance on key stages of engagement and the consultation strategies to be employed depending upon the context of the project.
- Open to genuine engagement: Although more work remains to be done to ensure community/ stakeholder engagement is firmly embedded as business-as-usual for the Distributor, this project has raised significant awareness about the benefits of early and genuine engagement:
- Within the Distributor there is an increased focus on engaging and working with the business’ engagement specialists, to assess and determine at an early project planning stage the most appropriate engagement approach.
- Depending upon the nature and complexity of a project, the learnings from the CRG emphasise the benefits of approaching the community with a ‘problem’ to collaboratively resolve, rather than just advising and informing them of the solution the Distributor has already decided upon.
- Since this experience, the business has also increased its ability to partner effectively with local communities and other stakeholders to look for alternate non-network solutions such as demand management, load shifting and the use of renewable sources.
- The Distributor has also reenergised its regional stakeholder engagement strategy through the Distributor’s ‘local faces’ – the operational managers accountable for building relationships with key regional stakeholders.
- Sharing of information and project planning reports: Learnings from the CRG show that sharing information and being transparent with the community builds trust. Any information gaps in our communication with the community, as was initially evident with the project, are now recognised to lead to speculation and the spread of inaccurate and reputation-damaging misinformation.
- Principles underlying the CRG Process are replicable: The key principles identified during the project review were trust, transparency, clear consistent and understandable communication and early engagement. These are all seen as transferable and are being adopted for other projects across the Distributor’s operations.
We recognise that various groups and individuals are impacted by our infrastructure and other projects and that it is important to assess any potential impact and engage appropriately. For our projects an early community impact assessment is required and an engagement strategy tailored.
In doing so, we consider the IAP2 Core Values and Code of Ethics for Public Participation Practitioners, and the IAP2’s Public Participation Spectrum.
This is also aligned with the AER’s Consumer Engagement Guideline for Network Service Providers 2013 that encourages continuous improvement.