Water Journal : Current May 2017
“Often community consultation is at the very end and can – at the worst – be perceived as a box-ticking exercise,” she said. “The earlier engagement occurs on big decisions, the better the outcome is long term for all involved.” Walker added that you should always start with a ‘blank sheet of paper’, which means testing more than just your preferred solution. “For example, if you ask, ‘What do you think about our plan to deliver recycled water?’ you’ve already pre-loaded an answer. Instead, ask people ‘How can we best meet the country’s water needs?’,” said Walker, who avoids the term ‘community engagement’ all together, referring instead to a process of ‘public decision-making’. AUTHORITY FIGURES Another consideration is that who delivers the message can have just as much of an impact on public opinion as what they say. Take it from Victoria University Research Fellow Daniel Ooi, who has studied the social and psychological barriers to purified recycled water. “People in water management, scientists and planners need to raise issues early so that the first time people hear about it, it’s not coming from a politician’s mouth,” he said. “Surveys show scientists and engineers in institutions like CSIRO and water authorities are generally seen as quite credible. They’re understood to base their decisions on ideas that have come about as a result of rigorous standards of research and technical knowledge.” Ooi also noted that once an issue became politically polarised it became much harder for experts to cut through the noise. “Desalination in Victoria was so controversial partly because the scientific issue of whether it was good or not became a proxy for what political party you supported,” he said. “Bipartisan support is one thing that the water sector in each state needs to aspire to.” I f there’s one word that encapsulates what the water industry is up against in a post-truth era, it’s ‘Poowoomba’. The unfortunate pun kept the recycled water ‘yuck factor’ front-of-mind for voters in the 2006 Toowoomba Water Futures Referendum. And the ‘no’ campaign’s ultimate success provided a great example of how people reach opinions, said University of Queensland’s (UQ) Dr Nina Hall. “Research around trust and community opinion shows that people can go from having no concept of a topic to having an opinion very quickly,” said Hall, program manager at UQ’s Sustainable Water, Global Change Institute. “In contrast, they’re very, very slow to change their opinion once it has been set.” This effect has been compounded by the rapid expansion of media channels and a rising sea of misinformation. There’s no need to explain how quickly a Facebook thread can get derailed by ‘alternative facts’. Considering the modern growth of mistrust, Executive Director of the newDemocracy Foundation Iain Walker levelled some of the blame at so-called ‘experts’ and the proliferation of mass media. “In some ways it has originated from selectivity around sources; there’s grounds to the feeling that you can find an expert to say anything,” said Walker. “There are simply far too many examples of analysis fitting the paymaster.” TABULA RASA Something else that has changed in more modern times is the sense of individual agency, Hall suggested. “As citizens we are now more empowered that our personal opinions do matter, that we will be consulted and that we can make a difference,” she said. It’s clear that now more than ever utilities need to engage genuinely and directly with the communities they serve. But how? Firstly, engage early and ensure a sufficient budget for deep and long-term community engagement so that people feel they can actually influence a decision, Hall advised.
Current Feb 2017
Current August 2017