From intergovernmental agencies to providers and local planning bodies, the growing recognition of public participation in the utilities sector is transforming resource management and infrastructure.
Decision-makers in the utilities space are faced with an increasingly complex variety of factors to consider, many of which can carry long-reaching implications for communities and organizations. Public input can unlock valuable insights to address these challenges and transform the management of resources and infrastructure.
Community Engagement Builds Equitable Solutions
Community engagement builds the bridges that enable decision-makers to actively work with the community for better policy, project, and governance outcomes. The benefits can often go beyond these ends as well to nurture better relationships and foster trust when communities and stakeholders know they are being heard and responded to in good faith.
By bringing multiple perspectives to the table, community engagement can help community, stakeholders, and decision-makers better understand each other. It can help create a richer, more detailed and well-defined illustration of the problems or opportunities at hand, including those aspects that may be missing, overlooked, or undervalued. These conversations enable the flow of information, ideas, and concerns, thereby equipping all parties with the knowledge they need to effectively understand and address an issue.
In times of increasingly polarised discourse, community engagement can also help find common ground on which to build the equitable solutions that can best represent the interests of the public. It can help illustrate rationales, counter-views, and support for decisions, and underline key democratic values.
Informing Waste Management Strategies
Waste management spans several crucial areas of civic life, from speaking to environmental concerns to sustainability, sanitation, public health and beyond. The community remains a key partner in ensuring that waste management can meet its goals and strive to respond to the emerging environmental and social challenges in the space.
Community engagement around waste management helps address small-term goals as well as long-range visions. For instance, engagement can help raise awareness within the community about their own role in the success of local waste management and sustainability. Engaged communities can provide input to help decision-makers understand where interventions are necessary, or respond to proposals put forth to transform some aspect of waste management. For decision-makers working on broad visions to guide waste management, community engagement can help supplement technical knowledge with local social and cultural knowledge to plug any gaps that may exist.
When Australia’s Central Coast Council set out to draft its first waste management strategy for the region, it was an opportunity to get the community involved in assessing existing waste initiatives and working together to imagine a long-term vision and ways to achieve it. Their face-to-face engagement strategies involved workshops and pop-up events. The community could also take part in facility tours. Online, the conversation was structured along a survey and a forum, where the community could weigh on the issues and suggest ways to, for instance, reduce landfill waste. Online resources sought to inform the community on important facts for consideration in the community’s relationship with waste, outlining issues such as what kind of waste could be recycled or sent to landfills, and invited the community to participate in defining a waste management strategy.
Meanwhile, in the US, Arvada City Council set out the issues around waste hauling and the processes that were underway to address key considerations. Digital engagement on the wastewater treatment plant at the Village of Chesaning unpacked water treatment and management for the community, with resources and polls to illustrate its themes.
Similarly, in Canada, the City of Dufferin surveyed residents on their use of green bins, and how this system may be improved. Waterloo’s online consultation on loose leaf collection detailed the challenges, resources, budgets, and background to their leaf collection program, and invited residents to review and comment. The City of St. John’s looked to residents to unpack concerns around automated garbage collection, going into details such as bin size, recycling practices, and questions around implementation. When the City of Kingston wanted to improve its household waste-diversion levels from 60 to 65 percent, the community helped identify strategies to keep reusable, recyclable, and compostable materials out of landfills.
Tapping into Community Engagement for Better Water Management
Water is central to the well-being of communities, and is a significant area of concern for resilience and sustainability. Community engagement on water-related services and infrastructure is reflective of both the universal importance of the resource and the need to bring democratic values into decisions around it.
For the Canadian City of Prince Rupert, utilizing digital engagement, residents took a home water quality testing program out to the community, where they could sign up to be selected to assess their home water supply, and access resources to help understand water issues in the region.
For the stakeholders and community in the Northern Integrated Supply Project at Northern Water in the US, digital engagement provided opportunities to learn more about, and provide feedback on, pipeline and storage infrastructure. Elsewhere in the US, the Village of Chesaning uses online engagement to raise awareness in the community on how their wastewater is treated and managed. By extension, Selwyn District Council, New Zealand, have proposed development of a reticulated wastewater system, with the community invited to provide comment on concerns around performance and maintenance of systems, legislation, affordability, local priorities, health, and relevant restrictions and limitations.
Taking comprehensive views of water management, communities can help identify crucial local priorities. For instance, the Canadian Township of Centre Wellington is formulating a water supply master plan for the coming decades, and is seeking community input to help establish demand, needs, alternatives, and long-term solutions. Alternately, in Australia’s Tweed Shire Council, the draft water supply and wastewater asset management plans are offered to the public for feedback.
Another key area for community engagement on utilities is energy, which is increasingly an area that demands conversations and commitment to strengthening relationships between decision-making bodies, user communities, and relevant stakeholders. The Energy Queensland Group, Australia, opened up to a variety of local, regional, and sector stakeholders in reviewing their distribution annual planning reports for their region. In their 2020 Plan submission to the Australian Energy Regulator, the Jemena Gas Network drew on extensive consumer consultation through online engagement and deliberative forums to address themes such as affordability, reliability, and safety. Equally, electricity distributor Essential Energy invited feedback on their 2019-2024 regulatory proposal with an online forum and Q&A options to review the plans and closed the loop on how these insights informed the outcomes.
This extends to consumer expectations and energy literacy. In New Zealand, electricity network Aurora Energy opened up to consumers on a draft future investment proposal, seeking input on consumer expectations, preferences, and values in their relationship with the network. Similarly, the City of Grande Prairie in Canada surveyed residents on energy literacy to help address energy waste, raise awareness on energy-saving for homes and businesses, and unpack community energy use. For renewable energy provider Statkraft’s Airvolution Clean Energy project in the UK, online community engagement enabled the sharing of plans for community review on the Ackron Wind Farm project to be sited in the Melvich Village area.
Why Engage Online in Utilities Planning?
Utilities planning has a significant role in shaping the quality of civic life and infrastructure. To these ends, online engagement is an increasingly vital component of public consultation. It provides communities with a way to access conversations and deliberations at their convenience. For decision-makers and organizations, online engagement creates dialogue. It offers a central hub where resources and information can be made available to the public, where stakeholders can connect and deliberate, and insights may be extracted from a wider swathe of community and stakeholders.
In short, online engagement can keep community notified of opportunities to participate in online and face-to-face activities, set out a timeline for consultations and projects, and can provide a comprehensive and transparent overview of what is at stake, how various stakeholders are placed in the matter, how the community feels about it, and what may come from these conversations.