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Promoters of public infrastructure projects too easily forget that it is not what they say but the way that they do something that builds trust and legitimacy, reduces tensions in the affected communities and moves people and organisations to agree rather than dissent.

'Ring road proposal sparks concerns.’ reported my local free newspaper recently.

Why? Because the public has only one option to comment upon. Why only one option? Because alternative schemes for the proposed junction improvement have already been ruled out. Why have they been discarded? Because they are ‘less effective in meeting the wider objectives of a road improvement scheme’, said the highway authority. How’s that for obscuration? Only when expert judgement has already decided upon the ‘right’ option can the public, it seems, be allowed to express its view and then only on matters of detail. Do road users and others never have good ideas about other solutions to the problem or possess knowledge vital to the early design and development of a scheme? Apparently not.

Of course the local free news sheet has heard it all before; a familiar report on a familiar situation, leading to an all too familiar frustration. Why is it that public consultation on public infrastructure schemes is so often a sham? Is it that what many call the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ is regarded as anything but ‘wisdom’, or is it that the ‘expert’ in charge is conditioned to learn nothing except from other suitably approved experts from within the same profession?

In 2004 Demos published See-through Science, Why public engagement needs to move upstream. Involved in the project were the RSA’s steering group for the Forum for Technology, Citizens and the Market, which hosted the pamphlet’s launch event, the Green Alliance and the Environment Agency. The message was clear: ‘Scientists need to find ways of listening to and valuing more diverse forms of public knowledge and social intelligence. Only by opening up innovation processes at an early stage can we ensure that science contributes to the common good.’

Following the 2004 report, have scientists found enough of these ways? It would seem not.

Roger Kneebone, Professor of Surgical Education and Engagement Science at Imperial College, has recently said:

"Traditional approaches to public engagement think in terms of transmission of information from ‘experts’ to ‘non-experts’. My colleagues and I have been developing a different model which assumes that everyone who takes part has expertise, though of different kinds. The expertise of being a surgeon may be very different from the expertise of being a patient – but effective engagement can result in “reciprocal illumination” for all who take part."

Progress in opening up science and medicine might be slow but at least it’s happening. Additions and improvements to our public infrastructure are often large, sometimes intrusive and almost always the cause of vocal opposition. Why then is what is seen by many to be good for two very sensitive disciplines is not seen as being good for engineers and their public infrastructure ventures?

Whether the promoters of new infrastructure are public authorities or private companies there is no doubt that ultimately their efforts are intended for the public good. So why is it that some promoters believe they have sufficient power and authority to override even genuine objections to their project plans and strategies and act accordingly? This is the notorious ‘decide-announce-defend’ approach or bulldozer strategy feared by NIMBYs although secretly beloved by many activists.

To be fair, not all planning for new infrastructure construction unwisely adopts the bulldozer strategy. But the picture is far from rosy. Although they might say otherwise, many promoters allow only limited public participation in their key decision making, using targeted consultation programmes which in reality are often ‘selling’ exercises designed to generate support for the option favoured by the promoter’s central decision makers. These public relations-led ‘consultations’ make it difficult to take account of public scepticism and public perceptions of risk or recognise the value to the project’s engineering team itself of listening to contrary opinions about routes and design solutions.

The answer surely lies in engaging in constructive discourse with all of an infrastructure project’s primary stakeholders and include NIMBYs just as much as the project’s key decision makers. Such an engagement process should be designed not to ‘sell’ a project to doubters but to establish a better understanding of each party's concerns and for those concerns to be thoroughly considered during the project’s early planning stages. In this enlightened world, a promoter would encourage a majority of their project’s stakeholders to participate in selecting the ‘right’ option (what to build, where and why) and in planning subsequent delivery strategies (when and how to build it). Truly democratic consultation uses the concept of the ‘wisdom of crowds’ to produce better strategic decisions and encourages consensus building - the democratization of planning decisions, with many benefits for both the promoter of the infrastructure project and for its public stakeholders.

What progress have we made in encouraging better public engagement in decision-making for infrastructure projects or in anything else where the wisdom of the crowd can be tapped for the benefit of all the parties? Not as much as we should like to think.

Michael is a past chair of BSi’s technical committee for project management and advocate of systems thinking.

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