The power of community ‘active listening’ in infrastructure projects

January 30, 2019

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s I led many public consultation meetings on controversial projects, during which disaffected groups would often turn up with placards. The next day the media would plaster local newspapers with images of the most vulnerable community members, quoting them as saying that the government and / or developer was ruining their lives.


Most of us who work in this industry have attended such meetings: Death-by-PowerPoint followed by a question and answer session in which desperate attendees hog the microphone in an attempt to squeeze as much as they can into their fleeting moment in the limelight. Concurrently on-stage proponents are often too busy mentally crafting the perfect response to realise that the ‘question’ being posed was rhetorical or wasn’t really a question in the first place, but a plea to be really listened to.


Fortunately for me and my clients, after one particularly bad meeting, I came to the conclusion that this type of public consultation is counterproductive, and that there had to be a better way. I still work in the field, but it’s been ten years since I’ve held a public meeting.


My single biggest breakthrough in effective engagement came when I realised that proponents on the stage (including me) weren’t actually paying attention—not just to what people were saying, but to what they really meant—which is often not the same thing. I wondered what I might learn if I actually took the time to listen.



I soon had the opportunity to test this theory came when I received a commission by an inner London borough in the U.K. that was the owner and manager of 33,000 social housing units and other urban infrastructure including schools, health centres, community centres, leisure centres, parks and more—with billions of pounds of urban regeneration programmes underway. As part of their regeneration strategy, they wanted to close several ageing, institutional and unfit-for-purpose day centres for older people suffering dementia—one of the most vulnerable groups of Western society, and a real hot potato in the context of budgetary health cuts and government service closures. My mission was to get it through Cabinet.




The catch was that they’d previously tried—and failed—to close one day centre the previous year. The centre operated at 50% capacity catering for only 15 people a day. Moreover, just one-minute walk away was another council-run centre for people with dementia—huge, modern and well-resourced, but operating at 70% capacity. It made sense to move 15 people from the smaller, under-resourced centre to the larger one where they would have access to better services. It seemed like a no-brainer, until a Hollywood celebrity got involved, and led a very high-profile opposition campaign. The politicians got cold feet, and the proposal was kicked into the long grass.


Working closely with a lead cabinet member, I planned a six-month behind-the-scenes social impact assessment, baseline assessment and engagement programme, in which I would not present council plans to close day centres. Instead I would listen to people’s viewpoints on what they thought were the best way to manage resources and services. I used this new-found knowledge to inform development and framing of the proposal. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I wasn’t the only one testing this method, an approach that came to be known as co-design—now regulated as mandatory in all U.K. public sector regeneration programmes.


During six months of ‘active listening’, I visited 100 community groups who provided activities, services and social or leisure opportunities. I may have initiated a few questions to prompt the discussion, but mostly I just listened to people talking with a passion and energy about their community and the difference they were making in the lives of others. I learnt what was important to them; the significance of the role they played in their community; and how the council should support not only their work but their independence from government. In most cases, most groups I spoke to didn’t actually want government funding and the ensuing performance monitoring burden: they just wanted to make a difference to other people.


I listened to personal stories, like Arthur, who couldn’t recall what he had for breakfast, or how to tie his shoelaces. He could remember the war though and suddenly came to life when he visited schools to talk to schoolchildren about what it was like to be a soldier during World War II. The schoolchildren listened intently, inspired by a powerful story they wouldn’t quickly forget—one that probably did more good than countless social studies lessons. Arthur was only able to go to the schools thanks to a volunteer who provided transportation and helped him arrange the visits.


I took notes—copious, verbatim minutes of every meeting running to hundreds and hundreds of pages.


I then spent a couple of months carefully analysing the feedback. I sorted every single comment into themes and quantified the various topics and ideas in order to get a clear sense of what mattered to people and what they wanted the council to do. A pattern slowly emerged. Much to my surprise, it indicated exactly what the council wanted to hear.


The public didn’t want people with dementia to be shut away in institutions. They wanted them to be part of community life. Communities sought to understand how to best adapt their services and activities to be dementia-friendly, and to find and welcome people with dementia into their lives. Most significantly, they didn’t want council (i.e. taxpayer) resources propping up old, institutional buildings. Instead they wanted the money to be spent on people, and for them to have the power to spend it on what they knew would make the most difference to the quality of life for people with dementia—like an outing with friends, instead of sitting in a day centre.


A substantial majority of people said that if there was a lack of sufficient funds to accommodate building-based day centre placements for people with dementia, and if the services weren’t operating at full capacity anyway—due to the fact that people didn’t want institutional care—then the council should merge some services, close some buildings, and reinvest in people. They proposed that through rationalising buildings, the council wouldn’t have to cut service budgets.


After six months of ‘active listening’, I had ample material to not only write an engagement report that evidenced social license for council building closures, but I was able to turn their feedback into an inclusive communities’ strategy which recognised, celebrated and promoted the vibrant community life of the borough, and the place people with dementia should rightfully play in it. This was a strategy showcasing the softer side of urban regeneration. Governments might be able to build community infrastructure, but they can’t build community. They can only foster an environment in which it can thrive. The strategy, including its recommendation from the community to close centres, received unanimous Cabinet approval.


The big takeaway for me was that active listening builds trust, respect and mutual understanding. When we foster this spirit, people not only feel their voices are being heard, but they have real buy-in to our co-designed proposals for change and can be trusted by governments and developers to come up with principles for good, sustainable development that actually work. I initially thought the community would be outraged by service closures. I was wrong. They were outraged at not being respected and given a voice.


Active listening, rather than token-gesture consultation, has tremendous power to turn the tide of public outrage and opposition to sustainable development. Consequently, this can harness the community to co-design an infrastructure they will be proud to have in their backyards; one that will foster thriving communities. If we are brave enough to initiate this method before developing proposals, let alone consulting on them, we might just be pleasantly surprised.

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