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Outside the City Limits: Comparing Regional and Metropolitan Engagement.

13 March, 2023

Funding for infrastructure projects in Queensland is increasingly being directed towards regional and rural areas, with a strong increase in the project pipeline outside of Greater Brisbane as outlined in the 2022 Queensland Major Projects Pipeline report.  

In fact, QMCA has reported that the highest concentration of funded work over the next five years has shifted from Greater Brisbane to the Ipswich–Toowoomba–Logan Region, with 19% of funded activity. In addition, the Outback and Mackay Regions are predicted to account for $22B of all project activity over the next five years. 

With increased investment into these regional areas, and the trend towards larger and more complex projects across the county, effective and empathetic engagement is becoming more and more critical to the successful delivery of infrastructure projects to create sustainable and legacy outcomes for communities and the industry. 

But who will be engaging on behalf of these projects in regional and rural areas? Analysis from Infrastructure Australia shows that in 2023, labour demand for publicly funded projects alone is expected to increase to more than double the projected available supply Australia-wide. This shortage will also affect community engagement professionals. 

To respond to the regional skill gaps, contractors are increasingly relocating engagement professionals from metro areas onto regional projects. While engagement experience on metro projects is transferable, it would be a mistake not to examine how we can best deliver major projects in regional and rural locations. 

So, I’m sharing what I know from my recent experience in Central Queensland, to give you a guide before you take on the delivery of a regional project. 

Understand your community  

Regional and rural communities near major infrastructure projects are likely to be more geographically separated than metro areas. However, with a decreased population per square km, these regional communities are more likely to know their neighbour and are just as connected as metropolitan suburbs. 

Make sure you understand the community, identify your potential project partners, and how you can develop ambassadors when developing your engagement strategy. Plan carefully – what’s happened prior to the project? What’s happening at the same time? Recognise the local culture and leave your metro comparisons behind.  

You should always approach communication with individuals as part of your overall community engagement strategy… even if their closest neighbour is 100km away. 

Use local knowledge 

As in our cities, regional and rural communities are often deeply loyal and proud of the place they live. Increased investment and development will mean change. But it’s important to recognise the people you are engaging with are the experts in their community. 

Take your time – speak to the neighbours, attend local events, and network. Ask the community who you should be talking to, don’t assume you already know the players. Remember that no two communities are the same.  

Engaging with the community early and often will ensure you know local priorities, can deliver positive project outcomes, and minimise potential issues during delivery. By using local knowledge and understanding your community through the eyes of the community you can identify how and just as importantly, when to communicate. 

Develop the right tools and methods 

It is a myth that regional and rural communities are less willing to engage with digital communications. Sometimes it’s their only option! 

While access to digital tools can be challenging in some rural areas, your communications quiver should be developed with the audience in mind – make sure you have the right tools to communicate across long distances and to a diverse range of backgrounds. 

You may need to think outside the box – long distances and busy people mean barriers to engagement. Is it a particularly busy time for the local industry? Do you need to organise transport for someone you know has important perspective?  

Asking these questions of yourself and the community will help set you up for success. 

Build social license by maintaining strong community links 

Working in a community means you are a part of it. Don’t drop off the face of the earth when you get what you need.  

Circle back to the community and share your findings and show how you used the community’s input. What opportunities did you identify through the process? Why weren’t you able to take something on board? This bit of respect will go a long way. 

As part of your social license strategy, you may also need to consider how to build local capacity by using local skills and suppliers. Investment into the local economy is a key focus in the public sector, with 90.4% of Queensland Government contracts awarded to suppliers with a Queensland presence in FY20-21. Make sure you understand where the opportunities on your project exist and communicate these with the community. 

So, what is the difference between delivering community engagement in metropolitan areas and regional and rural communities? While it’s true that the principles of successful community engagement aren’t going to change, and you could probably meet your contract requirements by using the same tools and processes from a previous metropolitan project, you’re probably not going to make any meaningful impact.  

Community values, lifestyles, and experiences in regional and rural areas are completely different. Developing a people-centric and place-based approach to engagement in these communities will make sure you are engaging the right people, with the right tools, at the right time, about the right topics, to leave a positive legacy on your community. 

At Struber, leaving a legacy is at the heart of what we do. We have been supporting private and public clients with people centric services across regional and rural areas, and look to further our impact by providing meaningful outcomes and project excellence to our clients, and the communities they serve that realise the ambitions of our infrastructure pipeline.   


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