The UK public believe that investment in the rail network will play an important role in efforts to level-up the country’s economic prospects, and that it will play an important role in efforts to reduce future carbon emissions.
However, the vast majority of people don’t believe that the rail network is state of the art or future proof, and cost remains the most significant limiting factor to travelling by train.
These are some of the findings of the latest round of Attitudes research into public perceptions of infrastructure, conducted by Copper Consultancy, the specialist infrastructure communications agency.
Key findings of the research are:
- More people expect to use the rail network following the Covid pandemic than before, with the number of people who never travel by train falling from 34% to 26%
- However, usage patterns will change, with the number of people using the rail network at least once a week, falling from 24% to 22%
- Less than 10% of people think that the UK’s rail network can be described as state of the art or future proof, yet only 30% think that it is outdated or poorly maintained
- 64% of people agree with continued government investment in improving the rail system, compared with 7% who disagree
- 66% of people agree that rail travel is a green form of transport, and developing new rail infrastructure would support the country’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions
- 51% of people believe that developing improved transport links is important to level-up the economy, compared with 7% who believe it’s not important
Discussing the findings, Ben Heatley, Managing Partner at Copper said: “The UK’s rail network is critically important to our transport system, to our long term economic prospects, and it plays a unique role in our national psyche. There are few countries who are as proud of their role in developing rail transport, or are as critical of the state of their rail system today.
“The findings of our research are encouraging and demonstrate significant support for investment into the rail network, ongoing commitment to use the system, and understanding of the role it can play in both levelling-up and the transition to net zero. The challenge facing the industry, however, is how it can simultaneously address customer demand for improvement in order to become ‘state of the art’, without increasing cost to the passenger.”
“Ongoing developments in new rail lines, improved station infrastructure and more integrated transport will almost certainly help, but there remains a continued need to promote the positive effect that rail investment can have for communities across the UK.”
This research was conducted as part of Copper’s ongoing Attitudes to Infrastructure series, which focuses on understanding the public’s perceptions of the social and economic infrastructure that serves them. Copper has conducted Attitudes research for over five years, and has previously considered the public’s views on subjects including the transition to net zero, infrastructure plans post Brexit, and public transport.
Copper is hosting an industry webinar to discuss the findings of this research and to consider ‘How the rail sector can be a catalyst for change in the communities it serves’. Registration is still available and people can sign up here.
The UK is forging ahead with ambitions plans to tackle climate change and reach net zero emission by 2050. Government’s Ten Point Plan, the updates to the Green Book and Energy White Paper put the foundations in place for change within our economy and the way we live our lives.
The eyes of the world will be on the UK as we host COP26 in Scotland, preceded by the G7 in Cornwall in June. Covid recovery is top of the agenda, but climate change will be second and remain on a key topic for decades to come.
The argument to green our economy has been won; strategies are turning into actions. New renewables, hydrogen and nuclear technologies are on the way.
Our own data shows that the public supports action to tackle climate change. Within this support, transport tops the list of the sectors that has the greatest opportunity to make a difference.
So surely, the greener the project or idea, the more public support there is for it?
What the public is really interested in is what effects them in the near future. That’s not to say climate change is unimportant. Its to say that it cannot be relied on when you take the public’s aspirations into consideration.
In our latest opinion polling, we can see what drives people views on projects and honing in on rail projects provides a powerful case study.
The purpose of new rail projects in the public’s mind is to take (other peoples?) cars off the road, increase connectivity, boost the economy and then address net zero targets.
These priorities for the public deliver meaningful change to their lives in the short to medium term.
The importance of the economy is front and centre of people’s thinking. People want to see investment in projects as a mechanism to bring costs down. Cost is more likely to be a limiting factor on why people would limit their time on a train than the future changing working patterns. Even during a pandemic, cost outweighs concerns about safety.
Over time, we can speculate that this trend will shift as the charge to net zero plays a more active role in our lives. It also leaves an unanswered questions about the public’s willingness to pay for net zero, but our previous research says that almost 60 per cent are do not think they should foot the bill to address climate change.
So for now as Bill Clinton said almost 30 years ago – it’s the economy, stupid.
Ben Heatley, Managing Partner at Copper Consultancy considers the major role coastal towns and cities can play in the future of the UK, as we strive for Net Zero and to establish a new identity post Brexit.
The Government has achieved a significant amount of its political success based upon the principal of Levelling-Up. They have successfully tapped into public sentiment that economic prosperity is too concentrated in some regions of the UK and within some strata of society.
Producing a more level playing-field has been a key campaigning theme for the Conservative Party under Boris Johnson. It contributed to their success in the 2019 General Election, which provided the Conservative Party with a comfortable majority, and enabled them to flip a number of previously unassailable red-wall seats.
In many people’s eyes, that process of economic rebalancing has focused on redirection of investment from the South, to the North. This idea plays into overly simplistic ideas of the UK as dividing neatly into the postindustrial North and the prosperous service led economy of London and the South East.
But the idea of Levelling-Up is about far more than addressing the North-South divide. The Brexit debate highlighted that communities across the UK feel left behind. Research Copper undertook in 2020 suggested that people in the South East and South West are more eager to see Leveling-Up than those in Yorkshire or the West Midlands.
Rather than the greatest economic divide in the UK being North vs South, it’s arguable that it’s between metropolitan regions which have achieved significant economic growth in recent decades, and smaller towns that are less well connected and do not benefit from large scale investment. The Government is clearly attempting to address this issue, with the Towns Fund set to distribute £3.6bn to projects in smaller settlements across the UK.
Within this grouping of towns across the UK, the places that have experienced some of the greatest disparity in prosperity are coastal. Analysis in 2017 by the Social Market Foundation (SMF) thinktank found that in 85% of Britain’s 98 coastal local authorities, people earned below the national average, with employees in seaside communities paid about £3,600 less. Data from the Office for National Statistics also showed that in 1997 economic output per person was 23% lower in coastal communities than non-coastal communities, while in 2015 the gap had widened to 26%.
So the question is, should the Government be focusing most intently on Levelling Up, Or Levelling Out? And what can be done to enhance the economic prospects of the three million people who live on the coastal periphery of our country?
Just as the North is not one homogenous region, with wildly different levels of economic prosperity between major cities and former industrial towns, so is the case with coastal towns and cities. Some are vibrant seaside resorts, some are commuter settlements for neighboring cities and some are successful international trading hubs. So the solution to deprivation will not be uniform. But when levelling up, Brexit and net-zero are considered together, the UK’s coastal communities may have an increasingly vital role to play in all our lives, and therefore a more sustainable future.
In last week’s budget the Chancellor announced a series of measures focused on carbon reduction and enhancing trade, which will be of material benefit to coastal regions. These included eight new freeports, £27million for the Aberdeen Energy Transition Zone, £4.8million for a Hydrogen Hub on Anglesey, £20million to support floating offshore wind technology, and investment in the ports of Teesside and Humber.
In isolation, these measures are not going to overturn decades of under prioritisation and decline in many coastal towns. However, the combination of investment from the public and the private sector to harness the UK’s potential in offshore wind, coupled with the need to establish new globally facing trading hubs in port cities, might.
Rather than coastal towns being peripheral to the UK, it’s possible that they may become central to the UK’s aspiration to reinvent itself as an independent, globally relevant, leader in the transition to net-zero.
Join Copper and guests on Thursday 11 March to discuss the opportunities of Levelling Out, and the challenges that need to be addressed to get there.
Today’s announcement was driven by the ongoing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the devastating impacts that it has had on the economy. National debt has risen to levels that have only previously been experienced in war time, and unemployment is expected to peak at 6.8% in 2022.
In that context, the main focus has been on delivering support to the public and small businesses, including extension of the furlough scheme and sector specific support mechanisms, including VAT cuts for hospitality. The Chancellor resisted the temptation to immediately increase taxation to address the budget deficit, rather announcing an increase to corporation tax in 2023 and a freeze on increases to personal allowances.
The measures proposed for the infrastructure sector included the establishment of a National Infrastructure Bank based in Leeds, introduction of green bonds, and support for hydrogen and offshore wind technologies. Meanwhile the levelling up agenda was given a boost with announcement of eight new freeports and confirmation of a further 45 towns to be given support from the Towns Fund.
Today’s budget doesn’t represent a full steam green inspired stimulus package, but there is a continued drive towards net-zero, while focussing investment outside London and the South East, as the government attempts to demonstrate that it can Build Back Better.
“We have to do things that have never been done before. The world is not going to be any less competitive after coronavirus. So it’s not enough to have some general desire to grow the economy. We need a real commitment to green growth… Our future economy needs investment in green industries across the United Kingdom.” The Rt Hon Rishi Sunak MP
Undoubtedly, the space sector has undergone a substantial change in the last five years. This has come about as there are more opportunities in the market to supply satellites, resulting in a variety of companies across the world launching and redefining the way we live, and beginning a mini space race.
But there are many challenges that these companies face, especially around public perception.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX programme, NASA’s Mars missions and even the moon landings are what people associate with the industry. However, it’s no longer about going where no man has gone before – we should care about the space industry if we care about our sat-nav taking us to the nearest petrol station, our transactions going through safely, knowing what the weather will be today, or watching our favourite shows.
It impacts all of our everyday lives and has the potential to enhance them.
The UK space sector might be smaller than its US and Asian counterparts, but the Government has signaled its ambition in space, indicating that the powers of Government are ready to be used. That being said, with a lack of understanding on the benefits within the public, it will continue to have a knock on effect that could prevent the UK from being global leaders in space.
If the industry is still seen as a novelty, it will be harder to justify public spending and secure private funding, making money even harder to come by in an already competitive market.
And although the Government has shown support, there are still regulatory issues that stop rocket launches from happening, with UK space companies deciding to launch in other countries because it’s easier to get the permissions needed. That itself could drive away investors from committing to UK programmes.
With the support of government, there is a need to change the narrative of space and the preconceptions around what it means for the public in order to realise the long terms benefits.
By giving clarity on the strategic goals of space and showing an ambition in the industry to boost our post-Covid recovery, it could lead to public support to invest in the innovative companies leading the way, providing new business and funding opportunities. Not only that, but it would also result in changes to regulations that allow those companies to operate with more freedom.
It is vital that the space industry provides the necessary vision, energy and direction to propel us forward.
Sam Cranston, Director – Energy Infrastructure at Copper Consultancy, explores the new opportunities for community engagement as the UK experiences rapid growth in utility-scale solar.
Subsidy-free solar has experienced a considerable boom in the UK in recent years. What began with scaled-down development resulting from Ofgem’s reforms to the Renewable Obligation scheme in 2015, has transformed rapidly into significant growth, owing to a fall in land leasing prices, new financing mechanisms and the potential for energy storage to reduce dependence on close connection to the grid.
It is estimated that more than half of the UK’s 13.4GW solar PV pipeline was added in the first 11 months of 2020, whilst 545MW of new installations were made throughout the year – representing a 27% year-on-year increase from 2019. These are startling figures.
But, without a clear and proactive national message and new forms of engagement, there is a clear risk that perceived local opposition to schemes will inhibit the roll out of potentially transformative renewable generation. There is a clear parallel with the initial boom in onshore wind, which resulted from technological development and favourable government policy, but failed to build lasting public understanding and therefore resulted in a moratorium on new development.
Whereas, by rethinking the way we communicate and engage with communities, developers and investors can ensure that the benefits of this boom are understood, and this can limit the risk of opposition, resulting in lasting rather than fading political backing.
Integral to this will be communicating the benefits bought by the technical changes driving the growth in subsidy-free solar. Co-developing solar and storage, for instance, can bring facilities further from grid substations and thereby opening up a wider selection of potentially developable land.
Forming a national narrative around the exciting potential of this technology in revolutionising our green energy supply will be crucial as questions continue to arise around land leasing and the potential impact of construction. At a local level, developers will be able to reinforce this by involving communities earlier in the planning and site identification processes to mitigate concerns and foster a real sense of collective pride toward helping the UK reach its net zero target.
There is also a real opportunity to communicate the benefits of the solar boom on local wildlife. Solar has a unique potential as a renewable energy source in increasing biodiversity through initiatives such as grazing, companion planting and partial shading. However, historical opposition has focused on its negative impact on habitats, rather than the long-term positives these projects can bring. Maintaining a dialogue on opportunities to achieve biodiversity net gain on otherwise low-grade, agricultural land can have a lasting effect on the public consciousness.
The combination of enhanced biodiversity and locally sourced renewable energy will also prove a great asset to local councils reaching their sustainable development goals, providing a firm and lasting foundation for communities to have a real stake in the national mission to reach net zero.
As Copper’s recent net zero attitudes’ report highlights, 78% of people would be willing to see a new solar fam on land visible from their home. But that doesn’t mean people will be willing to support any and all proposed development, if they don’t appreciate the need for affordable renewable energy, understand the rationale for sighting decisions and support the opportunity to enhance wildlife. In this context, developers don’t necessarily need to engage more than they have before, they just need to engage better, with a more open dialogue with local communities about their aspirations and options to achieve them.
Until now, that dialogue has often happened relatively late in the process, and has been framed as a consultation about whether a community wants a solar farm or not. However, by engaging more informally, and earlier, using the principles of Co-Design, the choice can be reframed to how should we develop this asset and what can be done in that process to deliver community as well as environmental net-gain.
For the UK to succeed in its rollout of subsidy-free solar, a clear and proactive national message must be adopted to address the changes in how the technology is developed and how it is managed. While considerable effort has gone into the core messaging in our national mission to reach net zero by 2050, cutting solar out of our national narrative will only diminish public understanding of its importance to reach this target.
A national programme will take time to both get moving and to have an impact. But rethinking how we engage communities, will allow industry to lead at the forefront of this messaging and match the scale of our collective ambition with the knowledge that we are bringing the public along in the fight for net zero.
Perspectives with Bruce Hugman from the World Health Organisation’s Uppsala Monitoring Centre (UMC) – an independent centre for patient safety and scientific research
In a pattern close to that of major public health programmes, the infrastructure sector delivers major projects supported by government policy with the aim of addressing societal issues, protecting a population’s wellbeing and achieving progress against global challenges while balancing impacts, all within a political context. To achieve these aims, regulatory, planning, legal, safety and communications risks need to be addressed before this becomes a reality.
I am not writing as a representative of WHO or Uppsala Monitoring Centre UMC), but have worked for both for the past 25 years as a communications expert and teacher. WHO plays a major, active role in strategy, guidance and field-work in all aspects of global health; UMC focuses exclusively on patient safety and, among other things, collects data on the adverse reactions patients have to their treatments. The UMC database contains over 20 million reports of adverse reactions gathered worldwide over 40 years since the WHO Programme began. Those represent only a tiny percentage of all adverse reactions experienced by patients.
My job has been to help put communications on the medical and scientific map and to promote the case that failures in communications often underlie problems and failures of all kinds. Our concerns range from the encounter between patient and doctor, all the way through to drug development, national regulation and global public health policy. Effective communications promote health and save lives, everywhere.
This article mentions empathy, among much else. Lest you think this is some woolly, armchair concept, I want to make the case for it now. Empathy is the ability to think and feel like someone else, to see the world from their perspective, for however brief a period. It is not ‘putting yourself in some else’s shoes’, it is experiencing life as someone else would experience it in their shoes. It is not sympathy or concern or compassion; it is a strenuous intellectual and imaginative effort to move utterly outside one’s own reality and into the reality of another. It is achieved by research, engagement, by profound listening and patience. If there were more empathy of this quality in the world, there would be a great deal less strife and alienation, in families and institutions, in politics and economics, and in infrastructure and healthcare.
So, with that background, let’s begin; I hope you will enjoy this short cross-sectoral journey.
From medieval cathedrals to Victorian railways, from the Adirondacks Northway to the 30-metre telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, from dams to bridges, from windfarms to HS2, even foreign embassies in Tower Hamlets and golf courses in Aberdeenshire, great infrastructure and engineering projects have always provoked a measure of opposition, sometimes extreme.
From the first modern vaccination, of an 8 year-old boy with live cowpox by Edward Jenner in 1796, until the present day, vaccination has also provoked opposition, sometimes extreme. Hostility to projects is one of several influential, common features of infrastructure and health that I hope you will find illuminating to explore with me.
This text appeared in the synopsis for the webinar:
‘The infrastructure sector delivers major projects supported by government policy with the aim of addressing societal issues, protecting a population’s wellbeing and achieving progress against global challenges while balancing impacts, all within a political context. To achieve these aims, regulatory, planning, legal, safety and communications risks need to be addressed before this becomes a reality.’
These very words describe equally accurately the enterprise of public health, where ‘projects’ are focused on delivering healthcare programmes or services of one kind or another within a comparably complex context of demands and risks.
Effective risk management and programme integrity in vaccination are matters of life and death: over the centuries, hundreds of millions of people died from smallpox, even through the 20th century until it was declared eradicated through vaccination in 1980; overall, the life-saving capacity of vaccination is stunning: WHO reports that immunization currently prevents 2-3 million deaths every year from diseases like diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, influenza and measles, as well as millions of hospitalisations.
When things go wrong in vaccination programmes, when risks are not anticipated or well managed, people become infected or die from direct or indirect effects:
- scores of health workers distributing polio vaccine have been killed on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border
- a boycott of polio vaccination in northern Nigeria led to re-emergece of the disease
- problems with the dengue vaccination programme in the Philippines led to a loss of faith in vaccination in general
- in Europe and the US loss of confidence in the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine led to outbreaks of measles and the death of children
- ebola projects were recently being stymied in DRC because of rumours of foreign plots and threats to health
- substantial numbers of people in the West indicate refusal or likely reluctance in relation to a Covid-19 vaccine.
What can we learn about risk management from these compelling and troubling facts?
The complexity of public perception:
There are a few fundamental truths about public perception and opinion about infrastructure projects, vaccination or any issue in society that we all need to keep in mind:
- Heterogeneity within society and within individuals
- Everyone assesses risk differently and inconsistently
- Opinions and perceptions are driven less by facts and reason than by emotion and political, religious and other affiliations (for example, denial of climate change and the politicization of mask-wearing in the US)
- Patterns of opinion and perception tend to cluster together, especially under the influence of social media; such clusters are powerful determinants of loyalties and opinion
- Confirmation bias, that is the tendency of every one of us to rally round those who share and confirm our opinions and to dismiss or re-interpret opinions or facts that challenge our views (we all do it, however clever we think we are)
- Fundamentalists, especially at the hostile end of the spectrum, are usually small in number but effective in making themselves heard.
Perception and opinion are strongly influenced by variables that we must factor into our planning and communications by accurately identifying and targeting them:
- The degree of trust in the entity or company making the proposition in health or infrastructure
- The degree of audience engagement with or alienation from the current proposition and/or previous comparable historical events
- The degree of felt inclusion or exclusion within society as a whole (for example, President Trump’s base embraces many who have felt excluded from dominant US society; many people in parts of the UK feel left behind from the prosperity of the nation; BAME citizens are often severely disadvantaged in their communities)
- Multiple socio-economic, demographic, ethnic, gender and other issues and poverty
- The immediacy of the risk or threat, its novelty and dreadfulness
- Risks related to children
- Conservatism, that is the urge to resist change, especially in the midst of uncertainty
- The seeding of doubt (this is what the tobacco companies did for decades after the lung cancer facts were established beyond question; what China is trying to do about the source of Covid-19; and a major tactic of climate change deniers)
- Vivid, emotionally-charged stories (real or imaginary medical injuries or deaths; infrastructure disasters of one sort or another)
- Group allegiance; political, religious, identity and other affiliations (especially through social media)
- Scientific, technical and statistical illiteracy
- The views of influencers and celebrities for good and ill
- Media reporting of variable integrity and quality
There is a small, but highly vocal group of fundamentalist anti-vaccination campaigners across the world who embrace a variety of beliefs: religion, hostility to science and scientific medicine, belief in natural remedies, distrust of governments and the pharmaceutical industry, doubts about efficacy and safety. Between them and vaccine supporters are large numbers of people who maintain a degree of agnosticism, sometimes known as ‘vaccine hesitancy’, who may be amenable to persuasion one way or the other, especially by those who pay them serious attention. We should pay a great deal of attention to this large intermediate, undecided group and never assume that the loudest voices represent the majority.
Although vaccination rates in the UK are generally quite good, maybe a third of the British population say they are either uncertain or very unlikely to agree to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and this includes some health professionals. Herd immunity is at risk if the threshold of (probably) 70-80% coverage is not reached.
If we look at some of these issues in relation to preparations for rolling out a Covid-19 vaccine (or any other project in public health or infrastructure), there are some very clear pointers to action in risk management measures:
- Trust and engagement are essential: built over time through meaningful engagement with audiences, transparency, reputation and a track record of positive achievement
- In terms of individual decisions, for example, people are particularly amenable to the advice of their own doctors or local leaders whom they know and trust; beyond that, other channels are much less predictable, though informal ones tend to be more influential than official ones
- Recognition that trust cannot be established simply by centralized, top-down communications, though inspired leadership can have beneficial effects
- Building trust on the basis of respectful attention to feelings and opinion, by listening, by empathy and authentic, targeted, calibrated responses in people’s preferred language; listening to everyone, not just the loudest voices
- Engaging trusted intermediaries, such as celebrities, religious and community leaders in messaging (the NHS is planning such a campaign for Covid-19; Birmingham is engaging ‘Covid Champions’ to promote the case; ex-presidents in the US are volunteering to be televised when they are vaccinated)
- Understanding that trust cannot be established overnight by strangers.
With vaccination, the perceived risk may not be the distant risk of sickness or death from an infectious disease (as a species, we are very poor at envisaging distant risks), but from the immediate insertion of needles into infants. Babies and adults are, after all, healthy when they get vaccinated. Covid-19 aside, in the West, we live in an era when the ravages of infectious diseases have not been seen at first hand by most people. As a result, exaggerated immediate risks or very rare adverse effects, or other fears, become more potent influencers than the diseases themselves. Once this conviction is established, it retains its potency even in the face of a pandemic and the daily evidence of sickness and death. Fake news promotes disinformation about all aspects of reality, including the existence of the virus itself.
There has been a decline in trust in politicians and experts; there is widespread cynicism about corporate standards and the motive for profit; and there are common beliefs about corruption and cronyism in national affairs There are well attested examples of both. Big, remote, powerful entities, like governments, public health systems and corporations can provoke suspicion or hostility just because they are big, remote and powerful – and because they sometimes do terrible things. This perception and its effects are risks that must be managed.
People have long memories for problems and failures: in infrastructure projects, disruption and delays, cost-overruns, aesthetic challenges, fires, collapses, and so on, rare though they are. The revelations of the Grenfell enquiry are currently doing inestimable damage to the reputation of the building industry. Similarly damaging in health are medicines safety and other scandals (like thalidomide, Vioxx, Valproate, vaginal mesh, benzodiazapenes, opioid painkillers, the 1976 US flu vaccine debacle), as well as abuse and incompetence in hospitals and care homes; rare though these are too, they stick in the public’s mind and shape opinion.
If you add the chaotic mismanagement of the pandemic and the appalling communications in the UK, US and other places; what some see as the risks of the unholy and dangerous rush to find and approve a novel vaccine for a new disease; questions about the competence of the government and the health service to operate track and trace and to cope with the huge logistical complexity of mass vaccination, it is not surprising that many people are anxious. I’m anxious. The coming together of multiple past memories and present doubts is a powerful recipe for loss of public confidence. It needs research, acknowledgement and active and highly skilled management.
Political and official blindness and deafness
Responses to the anti-vax movement have often been naïve and counterproductive. A belief that anti-vaxxers are ignorant and stupid has influenced the tone of communications (‘total nonsense’ said the PM dismissively on 11 November), in spite of the fact that many leading lights are intelligent and well educated, some of them qualified doctors and scientists. They are wrong, but they are not stupid. Cascading safety data and generalized assertions of benefit entirely miss the target.
Much the same issues apply to opponents of infrastructure projects: some may be malicious or ideological, but the majority are likely to be honest, conscientious citizens acting on the best information they have and on what they regard as the best interests of themselves and the community. Their arguments and feelings have to be taken as seriously as their actions and negotiated and managed, face-to-face. We need to know how far any hostile group is representative of their communities.
The vivid video of a distressed mother who claims her child’s autism or neurological damage or death was caused by the vaccination she trustingly agreed to cannot be rebutted by any amount of data, nor by the essential (but counterintuitive) truth that temporal association does not equal causation.
The truth is that short term, mild side effects of vaccination (inflammation of injection site, slight fever or headache, for example) are common, while serious reactions (usually allergic) are vanishingly rare (one or two per million doses). (On the first day of the Covid vaccine roll-out there were two reported adverse reactions, probably allergic, from which the individuals recovered quickly. The regulator has since offered guidance that anyone with a history of allergic reactions to food, medicines or other substances should not be vaccinated.) It is the case that rare side effects do not usually become known until very large numbers of people (hundreds of thousands) have been vaccinated or have taken a new drug over a long period of time (months or years), so there is always some measure of uncertainty, something we manage very badly as a society, always seeking a black or white answer. Serious side effects may be very rare, but anxious parents don’t necessarily believe that and they worry that it will be their baby that’s the one who suffers.
There is a considerable risk of disconnect between centralised, top-down planning and communications and the reality on the ground. Politicians, officials and corporate executives, engineers and scientists, can be blind to the complex reality of their audiences and to ways of developing the kinds of communications that might reach and engage them. Good communications are as complex as bridge-building, and a single person or department rarely has the ability to do both well.
There is always a risk of failure if there is not a serious, on-the-ground commitment to early research and listening. One of the tragedies of the current crisis is that both the US and the UK had very sophisticated pandemic preparedness plans and teams that were defunded or abandoned as recently as 2019. It is too easy to neglect investment in planning for risks that seem remote.
Although an infrastructure project may go ahead in the face of opposition, no company wants to carry a negative reputational legacy once it is completed. Avoiding or mitigating that risk, and building reputational strength for future projects, may depend crucially on the company’s insight and understanding of the objections and on the quality of the process of face-to-face engagement and communication through every stage. One complexity, of course, is that objections to a project may be ideological or political that the company cannot hope to resolve. However, the degree of empathy, the extent of willingness to listen, to negotiate, to make concessions, to manage problems, and to admit mistakes, will have a huge impact on public perception of any project and on future projects too (this is also true in healthcare). Nevertheless, we have to accept that there will be some, usually a small minority of objectors, sometimes a larger number, who will never be won over to supporting some infrastructure projects or to consenting to vaccination.
Societies have become more individualized, more fragmented, more tribalized and partisan in recent years. There are goodness and generosity, but preoccupation with self is rampant. Alienation and inequality have increased; deference to experts and authority figures have declined; social media and the internet have fundamentally changed the way people define themselves, cultivate their opinions and assess facts and information; fake news, conspiracy theories and disinformation have erupted everywhere. We need to be aware of these destabilizing trends and their implications for us; we have no choice but to be energetically engaged hour by hour in monitoring and participating in multiple channels, especially social media. This requires clever, busy, agile staff.
The argument for vaccination relies on two equally important objectives: protection of the self or children from infection and disease; and the phenomenon known as ‘herd immunity’, the protection of society at large from the spread of infection and the sickness and death of others. Sadly, the possibility of exposing other people to potentially fatal infection does not seem a sufficient motivator to get vaccinated for a percentage of the population.
No medicine or medical procedure is risk free; every pill you take has the potential to harm you (every year millions of patients worldwide are harmed by their medicines) and, rarely, to kill you (this is true even of penicillin, for example). The ethical purpose of shared decision making with patients is that they understand the benefits of potential treatments and their risks. Accepting any treatment at all means accepting some measure of risk; the calculation will be different for every individual.
A similar computation of benefit and risk happens in the public’s assessment of infrastructure projects and there will be a similar range of varying opinion about the extent of benefit and the extent of risks and losses. Any doctor or drug manufacturer who says ‘This drug is safe’ is, at best, making a misleading and unjustifiable assertion, at worst lying. Any contractor who says ‘This project is without negative impact’ is in much the same ethically dubious category. Both players risk, in due course, exposure as irresponsible and untrustworthy and being added to a blacklist for the future. We need to remember also that almost all projects have unintended and unforeseen consequences. Covid, for example, has led to a huge backlog in cancer treatment in the West, and, in developing countries, to diversion of scarce resources, away, for example, from treatment of HIV/AIDS; the mental health of young people has been deeply damaged; in the bizarre category of unexpected harm, 398 people in the UK have died after ingestion of hand-sanitiser since January this year. Planning has to be radically imaginative to anticipate and take account of these kinds of consequential risks.
In relation to an infrastructure project, people may need to be encouraged to make the difficult benefit-risk assessment that the benefits to the common good outweigh the risks or losses to me, the individual citizen, exactly as we might hope to persuade a reluctant parent to vaccinate their child. Big ticket projects may draw attention to local deficiencies and intensify this conflict.
We must assume that a mother whose child dies of measles after she has refused to have them vaccinated, would feel substantial measures of grief and regret. That may be one of the stories we should exploit in promoting vaccination.
I mention this because I think that grief may be a powerful emotion that exercises some infrastructure project opponents: the loss of woodland or a much loved tree; the loss of parts of a familiar landscape; displacement from home; the disruption or destruction of daily routines; the impact on wildlife; all some kind of version of death. These are all unique, profound sensations which are rather more amenable to therapy than the blandishments of public relations. If I am right in this speculation, then it has implications for the way we deal with opposition in the early stages, throughout the project and in the aftermath of completion. This is just one more of the influential and complex existential risks that has to be recognized and managed.
My concluding key points to this rich and fascinating set of problems, relevant for infrastructure and public health, are:
- Communications in advance of major projects or programmes, and throughout, require sensitive and intense on-the-ground, face-to-face research about the multiple variables of public attitudes, loyalties, values and beliefs (standard consultation and online or postal surveys fall far short)
- The profound influence of memory, contemporary culture and social media on public opinion must be recognized and managed, principally by engagement that is rapid, empathetic, respectful and finely calibrated; ‘rapid’ means next to instantaneous
- Public assessments of benefit, risk and loss must be factored into the arguments for any proposition, including admission that not all benefits may be realized or universal, not all benefits may be perceived as outweighing the losses, and not all losses can be ameliorated
- In our communications we must seek to be trusted, through transparency, empathy, consistency, honesty, accuracy, genuineness, speed; even if in the end we are unable to reconcile all parties, we do not want to be remembered as heavy-handed, distant, neglectful, arrogant, for such an assessment would deeply damage our future prospects and those of the industry or of public health as a whole.
These principles may result in:
- Reduction of hostility and lessening of obstacles
- Facilitation of engagement and negotiation
- Persuasion and conversion of some opponents and alignment of the undecided
- A reduction in lasting antagonism, bitterness and resentment
- The enhancement of reputation
- More people looking favourably on projects and more people getting vaccinated
Before I finish, let me just reflect briefly on the extraordinary event of this week: the first vaccination of a UK citizen against Covid-19. This rapid, scientific triumph is built on years of slow, anonymous, painstaking foundational research. The story of coronavirus and the vaccine have now been told to us by a multitude of experts and scientists. Even with some distracting interventions by politicians, there has been a continuous narrative in which we have been able to locate ourselves and through which we have been able to make judgements and envisage the future.
There has rarely been much of a narrative for infrastructure’s great projects, or for its little ones. We never hear about the years of thinking, designing, planning, and imaginative risk-taking that the geniuses of the industry routinely deploy; nor do we hear an authentic voice of the industry as a whole or of the contractor on our doorstep. The British don’t respond well to having rules or changes imposed on them or having what they see as their rights damaged or taken away. Mandatory vaccination would provoke opposition even among some vaccine supporters and would cascade fuel on the fire of opponents’ protests. Infrastructure and public health, both having such massive impact of the lives of the nation, must tell a good story which touches people’s hearts and minds and makes them glad to travel with them.
About Bruce Hugman
Bruce has written extensively on healthcare communication, particularly in patient safety, risk communication and crisis management; he has published a dozen or so books (law, sociology, criminal justice, literary criticism, biography) and multiple articles in professional journals and chapters in edited collections. He teaches and lectures in many parts of the world. He has taught English and social studies in schools and universities; worked in criminal justice as a probation officer; held senior communications posts in the public transport sector; and ran his own communications company in the UK for ten years. He lived in Chiang Rai, Thailand for eighteen years, now settled in Oxford.
He has recently spoken and presented on the contemporary threats to science and evidence and on the corrosive threats of fake news. His principal books in the field of healthcare are Expecting the Worst (a crisis management manual for healthcare) and Healthcare Communication, a textbook for all sectors of the field.
This article first appeared in Infrastructure Intelligence on 7 December
Vaccination may seem distant from infrastructure, but both face common issues and challenges. Hostility to vaccination has parallels with opposition to infrastructure projects; the complex underlying causes of such hostility have many similar elements; risk management and damage limitation require much the same insight and skills in both fields.
Like infrastructure development, immunising a population takes time; the benefits and impacts are debated over long periods, even generations. To suppress or eradicate an infectious disease, a majority of the population must be vaccinated – anything up to 95%. In getting to this figure, the reputation of a vaccine and those responsible for deployment become the subjects of public debate creating an opportunity for damaging myths, fake news and hostile campaigns to take hold.
Both vaccines and infrastructure aim for improved societal outcomes. Notably, the Green Book has now been updated to include social policy objectives to guide government when making investment decisions; social outcomes are now a determining factor.
The common challenge: nimble campaigns
- Risk: Campaigners and project promoters are often at odds because they assess benefits, risks and losses differently; public responses may be based on emotional or political positions, not data or technicalities
- Beliefs: There is a small, but vocal group of anti-vaccination campaigners globally, promoting a variety of strong beliefs and convictions
- Undecided majority: Many people maintain a degree of agnosticism (or ‘vaccine hesitancy’); public health and infrastructure often fail to engage this quiet majority
- Early capture: Compelling narratives are needed to counter hostile messaging and to reach and persuade undecided populations first
- Trust: Infrastructure promoters and vaccination programmes need time to build trust by starting long in advance, continuing throughout and after; managing opposition requires our teams to be as active, creative and vivid in communications as opponents are
Five points infrastructure can learn from vaccine programmes:
- Communications before major projects or programmes, and throughout, require sensitive and intense on-the-ground, face-to-face research about the multiple variables of public attitudes, loyalties, values and beliefs (standard consultations and surveys will not suffice to achieve long term change)
- Rarely has a single person or department in health or infrastructure the ability both to meet all the technical demands and deliver good communications
- The profound influence of memory, contemporary culture and social media on public opinion must be recognised and managed, principally by engagement that is timely, empathetic, respectful and finely calibrated
- Public assessments of benefit, risk and loss must be factored into the arguments for any proposition; they will be widely divergent and will diverge from professional views
- We must seek to be trusted, through transparency, empathy, consistency, honesty, accuracy, genuineness and speed, even if in the end we are unable to reconcile all parties
This five point agenda may result in:
- Reduction of hostility and lessening of obstacles
- Facilitation of engagement and negotiation
- Persuasion and conversion of some opponents and alignment of the undecided
- A reduction in lasting antagonism, bitterness and resentment
- The enhancement of reputation
Infrastructure project teams and public health programmes set out to improve society. Neither wants to be remembered as heavy-handed, distant, neglectful, arrogant. Such an assessment would deeply damage our future prospects and public health as a whole.
Martin McCrink, Managing Partner, Copper Consultancy – firstname.lastname@example.org
Bruce Hugman, Communications consultant at Uppsala Monitoring Centre (The WHO Collaborating Centre for International Drug Monitoring) – email@example.com
Earlier this week we released the latest in their series of insights into public attitudes, entitled: Public attitudes to economic development – How the public views investment in places.
Following the recent launch of the National Infrastructure Strategy, which confirmed a local, place-based ‘levelling up’ Infrastructure Fund, this research report explores public priorities for investment in the places where they live and their opinion on which institutions should play an important role in these decisions. We surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,038 people to explore these themes.
The research showed that the public want tangible investment in social infrastructure in their community and that they don’t believe that central government solely holds the answer to the ‘levelling up’ agenda. 56% of respondents thought that central government didn’t fully understand the challenges and opportunities in the area they lived in, and the majority believe their local council has the most important role to play in investing in the future of their area.
Our findings have also revealed that the public generally has a low level of awareness about economic development in their area, with 61% of respondents stating that they were unaware of any plans or visions in the area that they lived. On top of this, 59% of respondents who had heard of a plan or vision stated that they hadn’t had any involvement in it. We recommended closer engagement with more emphasis on creating benefits for people that they can understand to combat this general level of public apathy for local investment projects.
James Gore, Director of Economic Development at Copper said “While the results of our research do vary between regions, the overall picture which emerges does not conform to preconceived ideas of a nation divided on geographical lines. Instead, we see an opportunity to galvanise the regeneration of towns and cities right across the UK by offering citizens the chance to shape strategies and visions on their terms”
Based on the findings set out in the report, we have established five steps for organisations seeking to engage the UK public in planning the future of places.
- Move away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach to consultation in favour of tailored options which enable local people to engage on their terms in whatever time they are willing to spare.
- Make use of digital tools alongside traditional face-to-face engagement to bring more people into the conversation.
- Be positive about the benefits of your project and tap into the strong public support for investment in housing, renewable energy and waste recycling, encouraging local people to be advocates for investment
- Build a coalition of partners across central and local government and the private sector, maximising funding and building confidence in your ability to deliver positive outcomes
- Maintain channels of communication throughout development and delivery, celebrating milestones to demonstrate progress towards shared goals
You can read our full attitudes library here.