National Community Engagement for Infrastructure Forum

Publication Date
22 August 2019

Good morning everyone and thank you for that kind introduction.

It is wonderful to be invited here to address this year’s National Community Engagement for Infrastructure Forum, and to join such a talented line-up of speakers who are at the forefront of best practice community engagement around the country.

I want to extend a very warm welcome to everyone here today.

And importantly too, acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, and pay my respect to the elders, past, present and emerging, of all Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Before I begin today, I thought I would explain exactly what we do at Infrastructure Australia.

We were established in 2008 to drive better infrastructure outcomes for all Australians.

We have two core functions:

The first is to evaluate business cases for nationally-significant investment proposals seeking more than $100 million in Commonwealth funding and

The second is to set the agenda on the long-term opportunities for infrastructure reform that will improve living standards and national productivity.

That includes reforms that put the community at the centre of infrastructure decision-making and encourage meaningful stakeholder engagement at every stage in the project development process.

I should acknowledge at the outset that this has been an ongoing focus for our organisation:

The 2016 Australian Infrastructure Plan, our national reform and investment roadmap had a significant focus on prioritising outcomes for infrastructure users – that is, the commuter waiting for a train, the family paying their electricity bill and the business looking to capitalise on overseas markets. We publish an Infrastructure Plan every five years, with the next due to be delivered in 2021.

The importance of delivering tangible service improvements for Australia’s growing communities is also built into Infrastructure Australia’s Assessment Framework. This framework underpins our work in developing the Infrastructure Priority List, which is published annually and advises governments on nationally-significant investment opportunities. 

Meaningful stakeholder engagement is a central part of our Infrastructure Decision-making Principles. This is a set of guidelines designed to improve project transparency and accountability, and calls on governments and project proponents to improve their engagement with the community at every stage in the project development process, from problem identification and options development, to project delivery.

Our most recent report in the Infrastructure reform series, published late last year, called Planning Liveable Cities, recommends a greater focus on strategic-level planning at a ‘place’ level –  including prioritising collaboration with the community to identify economic and social priorities that should not be compromised in order to cater for growth.

And finally, the need to further strengthen community engagement across the infrastructure sector is a key focus of the 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit, a document which we released just last week and the subject of my presentation today.

About the 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit

The 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit is the second national Audit Infrastructure Australia has undertaken, after the first was published in 2015.

Best thought of as an evidence base to guide infrastructure investment and reform, the 2019 Audit is the culmination of more than 12 months’ work by Infrastructure Australia.

It’s an ambitious and expansive document, and presents a forward-looking view of Australia’s infrastructure challenges and opportunities over the next 15 years and beyond.

The release of the 2019 Audit comes at a particularly important time for infrastructure investment.

We are facing a changing climate, a re-ordering of the world economy, and a reshaping of global institutions and norms.

Closer to home, our population is growing and changing, the structure of the economy is shifting, and rapid technology change is fundamentally reshaping our day-to-day lives.

This will have significant implications for how we plan, build and deliver infrastructure.

With this in mind, the Audit examines the infrastructure needs of the Australian community and industry – covering the major sectors of energy, transport, telecommunications, water – and for the first time, social infrastructure and waste.

The Audit is a truly collaborative document with 150 contributors and 5,500 people surveyed as part of our community research.

It comes in at 640 pages, with 180 identified Challenges and Opportunities, 350 infographics and more than 2,500 references.

Most importantly, the Audit brings together the views and experiences of industry.

It is not solely Infrastructure Australia’s view, but a common benchmark from which to drive long-term investment and reform. 

A focus on community outcomes

An important aspect the 2019 Audit that I expect many of you in the room here today will appreciate, is that it takes a community-centred approach to measuring outcomes across infrastructure planning and delivery – focusing on access, quality and cost.

This recognises that although all Australians share a common need for high-quality infrastructure that is accessible and affordable – beyond these high-level outcomes, infrastructure must also respond to local needs.

The diverse needs of different regions is worth underlining here, because our Audit shows that infrastructure accessibility, quality and cost varies greatly for people depending on where they live.

Overall, the Audit has found that infrastructure quality is high in our urban centres, including our smaller cities and regional centres.

Satellite cities, such as Wollongong, Newcastle, Geelong, the Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast, are benefiting from better infrastructure access and quality due to their proximity to their larger neighbours.

But while these cities have this, and the capacity to house more people, additional investment will be needed to ensure services are of an appropriate scale to support population growth.

And outside our larger cities, there still limited choice when it comes to infrastructure services.

In many parts of the country, service provision falls below what is acceptable for a highly developed nation.

More than 30% of households in remote areas are overcrowded, and many remote communities do not meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6: clean water and sanitation for all.

Australia’s mobile footprint only covers one-third of its landmass, and remote communities often have inadequate transport options.

This translates to poorer health standards and quality of life for their residents.

Improvements in digital connectivity have helped, providing access to new services like on demand transport and electric vehicles, while improving access for people in regional areas through tele-health and improved communications.

However, it’s critical that small towns and regional communities also benefit from these advancements.

Addressing these imbalances in infrastructure service provision needs to be a priority for governments at all levels, particularly because we know poorer access to infrastructure services in our remote communities is reinforcing disadvantage.

Another challenge we highlight in the Audit is that reporting on infrastructure does not adequately reflect community experiences, and does not consistently measure performance against outcomes that matter to users.

Across most states and sectors, there is a lack of reliable and user-focused information.

This makes tracking progress against these user-focused outcomes of access, quality and cost difficult.

It also means that decisions may fail to focus on the long-term interests of users, or may not accurately project changes in demand.

For example:

  • There is a lack of water quality data for water utilities with under 10,000 connections
  • Much third party real-time transport data is excluded from government apps, and
  • Unreliable and outdated household expenditure data is still the basis for policy decisions.

This makes assessing the performance of assets, networks and services difficult, and limits our ability to make informed choices about the infrastructure we use – both now and in the future.

The importance of community buy-in

In addition to this focus on community outcomes, the 2019 Audit examines how the infrastructure sector is responding to changing pressures and demands, and how it can meet best practice.

In this regard, a key challenge we identify is the need to deepen community engagement in infrastructure decision making.

In fact, the Audit finds that government and operator engagement with customers and the broader community on project and operation decisions, can be improved across most sectors and jurisdictions.

And of course, failure to engage can carry substantial costs to projects.

For example, it is estimated that around $20 billion worth of infrastructure projects was delayed, cancelled or mothballed due to community opposition over the past decade.

Added to that, our research found that four in five Australians believe it is extremely or very important to consider the views of the community when planning and investing in major infrastructure.

This focus on ensuring the community feels ‘heard’ is increasingly important, as infrastructure projects are getting larger and more complex.

So-called mega projects – projects larger than $1 billion in value – are becoming the default.

And while we are seeing record levels of infrastructure investment around the country to meet future demand, we also need to ensure that we are meeting community needs, and not just adding to a climate of frustration.

In this context, establishing genuine community buy-in for infrastructure must be a priority for both governments and industry.

One opportunity highlighted in the Audit is that access to more data on current or potential users may enable more rigorous analysis of future demand, which would assist in developing projects that properly address an identified infrastructure gap.

However, better data does not replace the need for engagement.

Rather, enhancements in information on users should enable governments and industry to engage more deeply with the most relevant stakeholders.

Over time, this may make it easier to ask the right people the right questions to develop a targeted approach to delivering infrastructure, and to explain the sometimes difficult policy and spending trade-offs that are inevitable in infrastructure decisions.

With this focus on measuring community outcomes and deepening engagement around infrastructure investment, we are also strong supporters of a place-based approach to infrastructure planning – and its capacity to drive greater community buy-in.

Place-based approach

Australia’s governments have been historically structured to deliver sectoral outcomes, such as transport, education, and health services, rather than ‘place’ outcomes.

However, sector-based governance structures, particularly at the state level, can lead to siloed planning and infrastructure decision-making, inconsistent outcomes, and unintended consequences for places and communities.

In comparison, a ‘place-based’ approach aims to reconnect infrastructure decision-making with the needs of a community at a local level.

It takes a cross-sectoral view of the interrelated infrastructure and amenity needs of a place, and identifies how and when these should be delivered.

Part of this involves a greater focus on the holistic needs of communities and places, and this requires a shift in community engagement practices.

For example, it heralds a shift away from one-off engagement related to a particular project or development that has already been designed and planned.

In a place-based approach, engagement occurs at the strategic planning stage, with a view to enabling communities to contribute to developing a vision for a local area.

This creates a better framework for local decisions that take into account a broader direction for a place and for state government support in delivering the necessary infrastructure and services.

Importantly, this means engaging with communities at all points in the strategic planning lifecycle – including ideas generation, strategic plan development, implementation and then also at the project level.

It’s about collaborating with communities, rather than informing them, to develop the strategic direction for their area, and getting buy-in early.

But it also means delivering on promises, so that communities can trust that development will be supported by the right infrastructure at the right time.

We also need to make sure we engage with a broad cross-section of the community and don’t view it as a box-ticking exercise.

Engagement should reflect the depth and breadth of community views, so it’s vital that a full diversity of views are heard.

It’s not enough to just hold a town hall meeting at 7pm on a Tuesday night when most people can’t get there.

We need to look at other opportunities to engage through online forums, or holding consultation at other places, such as children’s sport games on a weekend.

A really good example of this is Brisbane City Council’s Plan Your Brisbane community engagement process, which took place in 2017.

Example - Plan your Brisbane community engagement process

Brisbane City Council developed this process in response to a need for additional housing that had been identified in the 2017 Shaping SEQ regional plan

It aimed to ask residents what they loved about Brisbane, what they want for Brisbane’s future, and what trade-offs they would be comfortable with in accommodating this. Three phases of engagement were developed.

The first identified broad themes and what residents prioritise, the second explored those themes in more detail, and the third informed the community of the results, presenting a charter of principles to guide Brisbane’s future.

The tools used to engage the community went beyond traditional consultation mechanisms, and included:

An online game that allowed respondents to explore the trade-offs involved in housing 1,000 residents in an area, with levers to change density and infrastructure levels.

Other tools included online and telephone surveys, the creation of an intergenerational forum and youth advisory council, school library activities, stakeholder workshops, and competitions.

Awareness was raised using television and online ads, and postcards sent to residences.

Through this, the City received responses to the engagement from a significant 20% of residents, across a broad range of ages (from school children to 80-year-olds), and representing each of the city’s postcodes.

And the resulting strategy, Brisbane’s Future Blueprint (2018) reflects the community’s priorities, and embeds ongoing engagement, so community continues to be consulted on change.

This is exactly the kind of approach we need to see more of.

Concluding remarks

Infrastructure Australia brings great value as a consensus-builder – focused on ensuring that infrastructure decision-makers are always planning for the future, and our investment and reform agenda is evolving to meet the challenges ahead.

In releasing the 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit, we are aiming is to start a conversation about the infrastructure investments and reforms that will best serve our growing communities.

The 2019 Audit paints a forward-looking picture of the infrastructure challenges and opportunities Australia faces over the next 15 years and beyond.

And we certainly see that prioritising community outcomes and strengthening engagement across the infrastructure sector will be critical to meet the challenges ahead. 

Given the focus on community-centred outcomes and stakeholder engagement I have just described, you won’t be surprised to hear that we are committed to hearing a diversity of views in the consultation process that has now commenced following the Audit’s release.

Our three-month consultation will inform the development of the 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan, which will outline a blueprint for infrastructure reform and form the basis of our ongoing policy and research work. 

We look forward to hearing your feedback on the Audit over coming months, thank you.