Differing Perspectives: A View on Community Engagement

Slow moving traffic, inconveniently timed traffic signals and cars blocking lanes parked beyond the no-parking limit are commuting impediments we battle daily. Frustrated yet consigned, we become used to the ebb and flow and then plan our travel time accordingly. What happens, then, when an unforeseen road closure pops up to further thwart our efforts to reach our destination on time?

We’ve all experienced the unexpected lane closure, the flag man or woman stopping our movements forward. We ask, “Why did we not know about this scheduled work ahead-of-time?”

Often, it is simply due to a lack of coordinated and proactive community engagement. Because, we know if given ample information and time, we would have made a different decision – left earlier, taken a detour, restructured our errands, telecommuted or even opted for alternate transportation.

Too often being a frustrated commuter asking this question, I can only suspect, from the builder’s perspective, they wanted to get in and out and focus on the work itself. It might take additional resources, time and money to engage the community and “deal” with the oft times push back from communities and commuters due to the “inconvenient” street construction. From noise to dust to traffic disruptions, communities can be quite vociferous when it comes to infrastructure projects, particularly large projects where there can be years’ worth of road closures and detours (from D.C.’s National Park Service’s Beach Drive Rehabilitation Project to Michigan’s Gordie Howe International Bridge to Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct, and throughout the country).

But, let’s look at this from the perspective of those most affected:

End-User/Community/Neighbor/Commuter/Resident/Business Owner

Time is precious. Knowing how long it takes to go from point A to point B is of importance to the resident trying to get their child(ren) to school, the nearly-new parents trying to get to the hospital, the business owner who needs to open his door for customers or the commuter maneuvering downtown to punch in for the day. Knowing about detours or road closures or scheduled utility outages due to construction is not only important, it is vital to their quality of life and day-to-day success. The most important comment someone once said to me was, “Remember – at the end of the project, we (the project team) will leave, but the community of neighbors (resident, business owner, commuter) will remain.” We are there to make sure they feel involved, respected and informed while setting realistic expectations related to construction.

Local Officials

A fellow communications expert, David Biggs, the chief engagement officer at MetroQuest, conducted an informal survey amongst award-winning city planners during a planning conference. The planners received awards because, “these planners went above and beyond in the area of community engagement for their planning projects.” Curious, Biggs asked a few questions related to their approach, but his final question to them was quite simply, “Why?” To his surprise, from the planner’s perspective, they felt community engagement provided their elected city officials the “courage” to move forward with a project.

Working in the communication business for nearly 20 years supporting small- and large-scale infrastructure projects, I understood their answer. Although, one might not call it courage, but rather an assurance that the elected official will not be inundated with calls from his/her unhappy constituents when blind-sided by a disorganized and poorly communicated planning process which could challenge their re-election aspirations.

Construction Team/Owner’s Rep

Every aspect of the project is a direct reflection of the project team, but particularly the company in charge. Whether it is a local transportation agency, engineering firm or subcontractor, the public is looking to you for answers. Your perspective should reflect your desire for success and good public relations. Luckily, the transportation agencies in the D.C. area, including the District Department of Transportation, Maryland State Highway Administration and the Virginia Department of Transportation, significantly improved their public engagement policies over the years. Today, most local transportation and infrastructure projects include a public engagement plan. These plans encourage community input allowing for 1) transparency, 2) heading off potential conflicts within the community environment and, 3) building a public trust with the project team.


The media loves a good transportation story – and they love a transportation controversy even more. The D.C. area has its share of subject-matter transportation experts who will happily weigh-in with their views. To minimize negative public and media attention, a cohesive, well-messaged and proactive media plan is standard in all large-scale infrastructure and transportation projects. From the media perspective, they want to make sure the public is aware of any traffic impediments, delays and detours, particularly when it relates to a major commuting artery. It is always important to remember the media perspective is a balanced perspective.

On one side, they want the public to be informed and will gladly work with the owner and project team to provide the data, but on the other side, they can be quick to report when there is community distrust or division. I have witnessed projects that quickly implode due to escalating negative media reporting turning a poorly executed communication plan into the need for a crisis communication plan.

In today’s digital and social savvy society, information is literally at the fingertip. There is no reason for the traveling public to be caught off guard due to poor community engagement practices. The best approach is to start with a well-organized, cohesive and proactive community engagement plan with one simple mantra: no surprises.

Karyn Le Blanc is a senior vice president and leads Stratacomm’s infrastructure and development practice

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