Development, Government and governance, Trade and industry | Australia

9 July 2020

As restrictions are reinstated in Victoria but other parts of the country emerge from them, Sara Bice and Kirsty O’Connell take a look at how COVID-19 restrictions have changed Australian communities and how it will impact on engaging them in policy-making.

In economic terms, governments are borrowing from the post-GFC playbook in the COVID-19 economic recovery. We’ve already seen support for consumer spending via the JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments (major miscalculations and concerns about the September end-date aside). We’ve also seen announcements of major infrastructure stimulus through project fast-tracking.

Outside of Victoria, Australians remain hopeful that the toughest of restrictions are behind them. A return to ‘business as usual’, though, is a long way off, or it may not come at all. This realisation is particularly important for Australia’s infrastructure sector.

For infrastructure policymakers, part of reckoning with the ‘new normal’ is the realisation that communities will be different as a result of this crisis, and that infrastructure projects, and governments more broadly, need to consider changing the way they engage communities.

Ultimately, this is because communities have changed as a result of this crisis.

For some, the restrictions in place to protect public health have presented an opportunity to slow down. Immediate families and housemates became closer. They certainly spent – and at least in Victoria, will again be spending – more time together.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics latest Time Use Survey showed that pre-lockdown Australians spent, on average, just over two hours per day caring for children under the age of 15. The percentage of Australian parents providing direct care of their children has more than doubled since the start of restrictions.

Nearly everyone has had to exercise differently too, with many taking advantage of local parks and gardens and getting out in our own neighbourhoods.

In this slower, more localised environment, many people have connected with their neighbours, perhaps for the first time. They’ve checked in on each other, shared much needed staples like toilet paper, and even worked together to organise highly personal ANZAC Day commemorations at a neighbourhood scale.

More on this: Caring for Australians after the pandemic

Of course, it has not been all fun and board games. For many others, COVID-19 restrictions have resulted in isolation, increased drinking, and feelings of being more stretched and less productive – especially for those responsible for work and home-schooling commitments. Research highlights that pandemic quarantine can exacerbate mental health issues. Threats to personal safety due to domestic violence have also increased, with higher rates of underreporting.

The price of these restrictions for the mental health of Australians was illustrated by the recent and thoughtful national appointment of the first Deputy Chief Officer for Mental Health.

So, what does this mean for how infrastructure policymakers engage with communities?

For a start, those who have had a positive experience of the social changes wrought by COVID19 may look to continue those experiences. In some communities, this will see more engaged, more cohesive neighbourhoods with micro-communities placing a far greater value on local amenity. Policymakers could expect the local park, walking trail, or nature reserve to be even more valuable to local residents in the future.

As offices remain largely closed, workers may place more value on having a quiet home office, and could see suburban water, road, and electricity maintenance projects begin to attract the keen interest – or opposition – that has previously been reserved for major infrastructure projects.

On the other hand, those communities who have had a negative experience under restrictions are likely to be less than understanding of an infrastructure project that could compound their stress.

Those dealing with burnout after the initial crisis ends are likely to be even more exasperated at the reality of a difficult economic recovery. Early studies show considerable, widespread increases in anxiety and depression, and a degree of burnout may follow the initial crisis, as the reality of a difficult economic recovery – with no overseas holiday in sight – sets in.

Add this to other recent stresses on the Australian community, including prolonged drought and the summer bushfires, and you have a community that will require more empathy and emotional intelligence than ever before. Projects will need to aim to reduce, not compound, stress.

More on this: Why consultation is critical to delivering fast-tracked projects

This is going to require more time in dealing with community members. This may mean rethinking, and potentially increasing, community-facing resources, including engagement staff. It seems that communities will place additional demands on community engagement staff, particularly those from public sector organisations.

Communities have now seen what governments can achieve when they need to, and it’s likely they will expect more from public sector organisations as a result. This will include expecting more community-centric approaches to managing the project impacts.

On top of this, Australians are under even greater financial pressure. Unemployment is always a part of economic downturn, many Australians will be left jobless, and others will be under real pressure to perform as their employers struggle to survive the coming period of economic hardship.

Unemployment topped at 8.5 per cent during the GFC, with COVID-19 unemployment forecast to be higher. Alongside an expected 6.3 per cent drop in GDP, Australian workers, families and communities will be under real financial stress.

With more than 60 per cent of the population experiencing some level of financial stress and three million people living below the poverty line even before COVID-19, engagement practitioners in the infrastructure sector should expect to encounter many more stakeholders who are under financial strain. So, what does that mean for how they engage?

Financial stress will be a game changer for projects undertaking land acquisition, for local councils seeking to increase rates to support infrastructure initiatives or for infrastructure operators setting access pricing for everyday services like energy, water, fares and tolls.

The expected financial strains in communities underscore the importance of having a well-resourced and supported engagement team, together with a community- and customer-centric approach.

Given that a recent State of Infrastructure and Engagement Survey found that 40 per cent of organisations have five or fewer staff in their community engagement teams, it may be appropriate to look at providing extra resources within these small teams, providing staff with different tools, and changing processes to process to keep things moving smoothly.

As much as Australia is eager to get back to life as normal, infrastructure projects and policymakers will be engaging with individuals and communities who have gone through unprecedented changes and who are likely to be under ongoing pressure.

This situation calls for an even more personalised, empathetic approach to working with communities. At the very least, this situation demands more community-facing staff, more time and thoughtful resources to help build the consensus that keeps projects on track.

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