We are living through a global crisis, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in living memory, and we’ll probably only begin to comprehend the potential health, economic and social impact once the immediate health crisis has passed.

It was only a matter of weeks ago that we, in the world of infrastructure and development, were eagerly awaiting the Government’s budget, a budget that promised to deliver an infrastructure revolution that would level up the country and reward leave-voting constituencies for putting their trust in Boris Johnson and his team.

We already know that both economic and social infrastructure is vital to the operation of our country. But in these unprecedented times, how can we keep construction and infrastructure projects going? We as an industry need to challenge ourselves to look at things differently.

Tips for planning digital consultation

  • ‘On-call’ consultation: boost phone hotline capabilities by ensuring a mix of project team members are available to answer calls and introduce web chats to answer questions in real time.
  • Live webinar: a cost effective and easy way to provide a platform for people to engage in real time. Project leads can dial in from the comforts of their home and so can the public.
  • Pre-recorded exhibition:a video or virtual tour of a consultation exhibition from a project manager or CEO will give a people a sense of being in the room, and gives you a chance to articulate specific elements of your scheme in an engaging format that is easy to follow
  • Q&A videos: harvest the most commonly asked questions you receive through your contact centre, and answer these in an interview scenario. You can carry these out regularly throughout consultation to ensure you are responding to people in real time. To maintain credibility, you will have to choose to answer some of those more challenging questions too – don’t just stick to those questions you want to answer!
  • Web training: traditionally, many of our audiences tend to be retired or semi-retired. Without regular exposure to modern-day communication technology, it may be initially difficult to engage online. Consider providing step-by-step tuition in setting up, logging on, and adjusting options for those who might struggle.

These are scary times, but we could also see this period of social distancing as a catalyst for a step-change in how we engage and consult. There is an opportunity for technology and innovation to enhance the way we communicate about major infrastructure, development and construction projects, and for bringing schemes to life in brand new ways. And those who embrace change may be the ones who help lead the way in the UK’s social and economic recovery.

Legally, there is no legislative requirement to undertake face-to-face meetings or events as part of a consultation. We already have the digital technology that allows for webinars, virtual exhibitions and Q&A sessions, meaning that the opportunity for people to directly engage with a project team, ask questions or highlight an issue remains. As our traditional routes of face-to-face engagement become impossible, there is potential benefit in using digitally-driven consultation to bring a much wider audience into the process. This could generate higher volumes of feedback, which project teams need to plan for, but with opportunities to digitise some of the consultation analysis with software platforms, this would become manageable.

The human engagement element of consultation can exist in a digital world although ensuring that alternatives for people without a computer or internet are available is key, including some hard copy materials that can be mailed out and project team members being available to talk on community relations hotlines.

Engagement with relevant authorities on the approach and tactics, and ensuring that they are bought into a digital-first approach, is critical for ensuring that consultations are still robust, meaningful and compliant with any regulation.

Likewise for construction projects. While many are pausing work to review the health, safety and wellbeing challenges for workers, it is important that a pause doesn’t become a full stop.  If work can continue, communicating with stakeholders and the public to ensure that they feel safe when everything else around them is stopping and that they understand the underlying need for this essential work, is paramount – through email newsletters, social media activity, WhatsApp notifications and regular blog updates as well as regular mail-outs.

Infrastructure has always been regarded as an economic stimulus and, if society and the economy are to rebound as quickly as possible after this crisis, we will need to have kept projects in the planning and construction phases progressing as best we can.