A simple community engagement process to understand stakeholder concerns

How to design a simple community engagement process to understand stakeholder concerns

A case study of a proposed highway realignment through a small country town and the community engagement process used…

The Williams township is located about two hours south-east of Perth, almost halfway between Perth and Albany and is frequently used by passing traffic as a rest stop.

The two bridges into and out of town needed to be replaced. Traffic volume was predicted to increase at 2.3% per annum, with a 200% increase in freight volumes along this route over the coming 20 years.

The bridge replacement also provided an opportunity to consider alternative routes for the highway, either through or around the town. Three initial options were identified, based on desktop studies. Community guidance was needed to help identify the preferred option.


Objectives of the community engagement process

In designing the community engagement process we utilised the ‘Public Participation Spectrum’ designed by IAP2. The process focused on the ‘Consult’, and ‘Involve’ stages of the spectrum.

community engagement process

Working in the ‘Consult’ stage was intended to obtain stakeholder feedback on the alternatives or options available to the project team. Working in the ‘Involve’ stage was intended to ensure stakeholder concerns are understood and considered during the decision-making process.

Understanding who’s who

We needed to know who was who in the community and give some thought to how they may be affected by the project. The main groupings are shown below.

Stakeholder grouping Interests
Local businesses located on highway Largely reliant on passing traffic for their trade
Parents Large traffic volumes moving through town. Potential traffic risk for kids
Local residents Noise from large traffic volumes. Limited parking
Users of the recreation reserve Have to cross highway to get to recreation reserve
Transport drivers Need main traffic route maintained.

Understanding this helped to ensure we had information on hand to address their interests and concerns.

Getting involvement

Local business owners had invested heavily and were very reliant on passing traffic for their trade. It was important that they had a clear understanding of the project and the alternatives being proposed. They were seen as a very influential group in the project. All local businesses were contacted via post, phone or in person to explain the project.

An interactive workshop was held at the local town hall as part of the community engagement process. The workshop was designed to gain broader community input to help identify the preferred bridge replacement option and associated road realignment. The information generated from the workshop was used to assist the project Reference Group in making the final decision regarding the preferred road alignment and bridge locations for the project.

Members of the public who were unable to attend were able to submit comments to the project team via a number of avenues including an online survey. Stakeholders were also invited to join the project database in order to receive future updates about the project.

The project team maintained involvement through the use of electronic newsletters, website updates and briefings to community groups and organisations.

The workshop was well promoted through direct approaches to local business owners, advertising in the local newspaper, promotion through the local government and a direct mail out. The promotion resulted in almost 60 local townspeople attending the workshop.

Workshop process

The objectives of the workshop were to:

  • Inform residents and business operators of options identified and possible timeframes for project
  • Seek input to help identify the priority option for the replacement of the townsite bridges and road alignment

The workshop was split into the following sections:

  • Review of displays, and discussion of issues with main road staff
  • Formal presentation
  • Question and answer session
  • Facilitated workshop sessions to identify preferred route
  • Workshop summary and close

Review of displays and discussion of issues with staff

Prior to the formal commencement of the workshop participants had the opportunity to come in and view displays and discuss any aspect of the proposed project with technical staff who were in attendance. Many of the participants also took this opportunity to discuss the project with each other.

Several commented afterwards, that this was highly valuable, enabling them to better understand the views of other townspeople regarding the different options. For others, it enabled many of their initial concerns to be dealt with and for their stress levels to be reduced.

Formal presentation

The presentation outlined the purpose of the project and the need for action, given the finite life of the current bridges. It highlighted the limited future ability of the bridges to carry increasingly heavy traffic loads. The three route alignment options were also presented and discussed during the workshop.

Importantly, participants had the opportunity to look at these options before the workshop, and the majority were supplied with an information package beforehand.

Question and answer session – with a difference

Participants were seated at nine different tables. They were split up randomly, to ensure a greater diversity and discussion of views. Following the formal presentation, participants at each table were asked to discuss their thoughts on the presentation and agree on one question to ask the presenter.

This process enabled all participants to discuss their thoughts and concerns with others at the workshop, and still have their questions answered. Importantly, the process ensured that no one person dominated the proceedings, and that everyone had a chance to be involved. This was one of the keys of to the success of the evening.

Participant review of options

Each of the nine participant tables were then asked to review each of the three initial options. In each case, they identified the strengths and weaknesses of each option. They also made suggestions for changes to each option. They were supplied with large aerial photos, which mapped out the route of each option.

After a break for supper, participants were able to review the strengths and weaknesses and suggested changes for all options as identified by each of the nine working groups (tables).

Participants then undertook a prioritisation process to identify their preferred option using sticky dots, which they could allocate in any way, across all three options. This process provided a highly visual, equitable and efficient way of prioritisation.


  • Participants enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to discuss each others’ views and have their views heard
  • Participants found the process valuable, especially its participative approach to work with the traditionally dominant characters in the community
  • Much of the information exchange was anticipated to be between technical staff and community members. In fact, most discussion was between community members
  • The review of displays before the ‘meeting’ helped ease much tension
  • Requiring tables to have only ‘one agreed question’ reduced the potential for soapbox syndrome setting in early
  • The break for supper enabled further exchange of views (and enabled us to collate results from the prioritisation process)
  • The ‘decision’ was seen as acceptable as it was based on an open process

If you really want your next community engagement process to be transparent, meaningful and robust, get in touch to schedule a call.

Andrew Huffer

Andrew Huffer has over 25 years experience in working with organisations, businesses, managers and communities and at a state, national and international level. He designs and delivers specialist engagement processes, with a focus on facilitating open decision making processes and skill development of clients. He has delivered presentations and workshops at a number of state, national and international conferences.

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