How do we engage the public in decisions on infrastructure?

Rory O’Loughlin of ECF attended the Institute for Government’s debate on how to engage the public in decisions on infrastructure on Wednesday 13th February, held in the beautiful Carlton Gardens.

The event, chaired by Debbie Dore, the Chief Executive of the Association for Project Management heard viewpoints from a panel consisting of Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow; Philip Graham, Chief Executive of the National Infrastructure Commission; Ben Page, Chief Executive at Ipsos Mori; and Sir Andrew Dillon of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.

Andrew Graham opened the discussion by raising his prior experience in public engagement through working with airports and HS2. He emphasised that policy-makers and the public have a different way of viewing infrastructure development, and that decision-makers are more utilitarian than members of the public. Bridging that divide is imperative for successful public engagement.

The chair then moved to Sir Andrew Dillon, who spoke on the importance of public engagement with regards to the major decisions that NICE take which impact the NHS and the wider care system in the UK. He discussed NICE’s use of a Citizen’s Council from 2002 - 2015 as an effective method to look at a more detailed response- although he cautioned that questions can be raised by the public over who is selected for such councils.

Ben Page mentioned the inherent conservatism and NIMBYism of citizens at large. He raised the difficulties people have in imagining what things will be like in the future, and that if public consultations had been run on the Eiffel Tower or the London Eye they probably wouldn’t exist today. He concluded that although statistics and polls show there is a consensus amongst citizens that more infrastructure and housing needs to be built, one cannot expect people to be happy with the actual projects that get chosen.

Stella Creasy rounded out the discussion, stressing the importance of treating the community with respect and involving them in the process as opposed to turning up with an old-fashioned PowerPoint presentation. She stressed the importance of public engagement as a two-way street and likened the state of slow infrastructure development to the current state of parliament, consisting of gridlock with reluctance to reach over the isle. She closed the discussion by emphasising that if one is frustrated with the system to “blame the process, not the people”.

ECF enjoyed the company of like-minded professionals in the industry and will be sure to attend further events held at the Institute for Government.

Zac Slater