Whether it’s fracking or housing, change is what unites all forms of proposed new infrastructure.
When a company searching for shale gas announces plans for exploratory drilling, it means something is going to change for the community living nearby.
It’s the same with new housing developments, wind farms and any other new infrastructure development. Things are going to be different, and people don’t always like the idea of that.
Although it may not initially seem so, this is good news because change management and the theory of change has been explored a lot in the context of businesses and organisations and much of what we know because of that translates directly to stakeholder engagement in the context of infrastructure development.
The first thing to note is that we are generally creatures of habit, so we don’t tend to like change. However, change is constant and we all spend our lives adapting because of it, so we at least know that people are capable of accepting change.
Secondly, however, people mostly change grudgingly. And that resistance to change gets even more entrenched when it’s ‘sold’ to them. When that happens, most people will start out by seeming to agree, and behaving reasonably but very quickly their thoughts will turn to things like:
“Actually, I’m not sure I like this.”
“I’ve not been asked about it, I’m just being told about it as though it’s a fait accompli.”
“I don’t even stand to benefit, only the developer / government / landowner [delete as appropriate] will get anything out of this.”
And if it’s not addressed by this stage, they’ll start to think things like:
“I don’t trust this lot, they’ve all got vested interests.”
“You know what, I’m not going to accept this, in fact I’m going to resist it.”
At this point, people are really vulnerable to the suggestion of others that reflect the same views and opinions, serving to solidify their position. And in the context of controversial yet critical infrastructure, they’re also highly susceptible to the influence of political activists.
Change theory tells us that, to be successful, we need to involve the people that will be affected but do so in a meaningful way where they can see that their input has resulted in change that they can live with.
And where modifications aren’t possible, it’s important to give a properly reasoned decision and show that alternatives were thoroughly considered.
It’s possible to incorporate change management principles into the design of your stakeholder engagement and outreach programmes if considered early enough, and to improve your chances of success. Leave it too late, however, and affected stakeholders will see it as lip-service and PR - hardening their resistance all the more.