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Roads & Civil Works looks at VicRoads' approach to community and stakeholder engagement and how this role has evolved thanks to the growing popularity of digital and online mediums.

Roads & Civil Works looks at VicRoads' approach to community and stakeholder engagement and how this role has evolved thanks to the growing popularity of digital and online mediums.In November last year, VicRoads and Fulton Hogan invited Victorian youngster Elwood Majewski to visit the organisation’s depot in Geelong.

Elwood, a three-year-old autistic boy from Ocean Grove, has a love for road signs and road safety. The staff at the depot gave him and his family a guided tour of the depot as well as a brand new sign for his bedroom wall – a dream come true for Elwood.

Community interaction and stakeholder engagement is a major element of the public service VicRoads provides and takes pride in. This is a prime example of it working well.

Paul Matthews, VicRoads Executive General Manager Communications and Stakeholder Engagement, talks to Roads & Civil Works Magazine about the significance of community and stakeholder engagement and how VicRoads’ role in this sector has changed since the introduction of social media and the authority’s online hub. He says this kind of interaction with the public is what the road agency is built upon, and this relationship is important now more than ever.

“If we look back, our organisation has been doing community engagement for more than 100 years,” says Mr. Matthews. Over that period, the road agency has been a vital link for the people of Victoria. The roads authority, before becoming known as VicRoads, helped facilitate stakeholder engagement during the construction of the Great Ocean Road in the late 1910s. This inclusive consultative sentiment continues on today in a number of ways.

In 2015, VicRoads held nearly 200 community engagement activities across the state. These ranged from town hall meetings attended by hundreds of residents, to door-knocking, business breakfasts and participation at local events. Mr. Matthews explains that receiving feedback on things such as road developments and projects is crucial to providing a solution that benefits all parties involved. “We’re working for and with communities. Projects need to be more than just an infrastructure solution. They need to be a community solution as well,” he adds.

Springvale Junction at the intersection of Princes Highway (Dandenong Road), Springvale Road, Centre Road and Police Road in Springvale, sometimes referred to as Spaghetti Junction, is Victoria’s biggest black spot. There were 58 casualty crashes at this site between 1 July 2010 and 30 June 2015 and it has nearly twice the number of casualty crashes than any other Victorian intersection. It is a good example of how stakeholder engagement is critical to improving the state’s road network.

There are many opinions on the best approach to take to improve Springvale Junction, including grade separation, a six-leg roundabout, road closures and others. These approaches vary considerably in their effectiveness and value as an infrastructure investment. Mr. Matthews says that it was important that they had an open discussion with the community on the relative merits of all the possible approaches and for VicRoads to understand the community’s priorities.

VicRoads held a series of community workshops in 2015 and invited feedback through its website. These sessions provided valuable input on the community’s experience with Springvale Junction and also enables VicRoads and the community to exchange thoughts and ideas on how to make it better.

Mr. Matthews says the Springvale Junction project is a key example of how important it is to engage with the community and to facilitate the conversation, not drive it. VicRoads has had positive feedback from the community and stakeholders on the consultation process. He says VicRoads is now in a good position to be able to make a recommendation on how to improve the junction in a way that best fits the interests of all involved.

The community involvement in the project is ongoing, with further discussions with the community on a proposed solution taking place mid-year. Mr. Matthew asserts that these kinds of face-to-face activities are essential in how VicRoads delivers a safe and reliable road network, as the stakeholders often have valuable insights into the issues, and it’s essential that they have input into decisions which will ultimately affect them.

Another example of this kind of public consultation working was the case of freight movement through Yarraville and Footscray in Melbourne’s inner west, the gateway to Australia’s busiest container port.

Some of the local residents had complained about the trucks using suburban streets, raising concerns about noise, health and safety issues. Mr. Matthews says it was emotionally charged. “There was some real tension as the community was frustrated, industry was disengaged and VicRoads was challenged to find a solution,” he adds.

VicRoads partnered with the Environment Protection Authority Victoria, the Department of Health and the City of Maribyrnong and in February 2014 the first open house forum was held for various stakeholders, including the residents and truck drivers, to share their views.

“We came up with a number of ideas with the community as they owned the issue. We got them all in one room and then we worked through all the different options,” he says. “A lot of these meetings are about understanding points of view.

“In the majority of community engagement events, you’ll have a certain demographic. You tend to get people who are quite passionate.” Mr. Matthews says that it is the different perspectives from all around the room, particularly the highly vocal ones, that can help establish and understand the various public viewpoints.

Mr. Matthews says that after pinning down what each respective party wanted out of the situation, the stakeholders agreed upon a night time ban of trucks on Moore Street, a school times curfew on Sommerville Road and speed limit changes on Francis Street.

“When VicRoads Chief Executive John Merritt announced the changes at the third open event, late 2014, there was clapping. Through partnering with stakeholders and listening to the community, short term initiatives were successfully implemented at the end of 2015,” he says.

Exactly how the public communicates thoughts and opinions around such issues has evolved beyond face-to-face engagement thanks in part to a plethora of digital communication platforms, which VicRoads is now tapping into.

“The dynamic of local consultation has changed exponentially due to online participation,” states Mr. Matthews. In two and a half years, VicRoads has experienced a significant shift towards the digital space. Over that period, it has seen a 72 per cent increase in online engagement with the public.

After trialling an online consultation model, VicRoads officially launched its digital communications hub in 2014, which includes social media channels, such as Facebook and Twitter, and an online consultation space on the Engage VicRoads website.

“Nearly everyone is a customer of VicRoads. It’s not just motorists, but also pedestrians, motorcyclists, cyclists, trucks, public transport operators, local communities and industry,” says Mr. Matthews.

The online hub encourages the public to communicate with the road agency, offering an invaluable space for the community to be heard. The website includes updates and asks the public for their feedback on projects in development, such as the one at Springvale Junction. Not only does this provide critical service information in an easy and accessible format, it also provides a forum for stakeholders who may not have been able to attend a face-to-face engagement event to discuss developments.

Since its inception, this digital space has grown enormously in popularity. In 2015, 3124 new users registered on the VicRoads website and the agency has hosted more than 20 online consultations. Its Facebook page is close to hitting 23,000 likes.

In October and November last year, the authority received more user registrations on the site than it did for all of 2014.

The road authority has had to adapt to suit the needs of digitally savvy stakeholders while dealing with the constraints of social media and digital communication. The immediacy of this type of engagement requires VicRoads to ensure its communication is continual and reactive. “Social media is very time dependent. When people ask questions, they want a response very quickly,” says Mr. Matthews. “I still think the best way to communicate is face-to-face but people can’t always attend community events.”

He asserts that social media has expanded VicRoads’ role as a service provider, particularly as people are more active on their mobile devices. Updates to services or important information for commuters relayed through Facebook or Twitter need to be reliable, instant and accountable, given how people use smartphone technology these days.

The digital realm has helped VicRoads to open up its level of community and stakeholder engagement, providing a valuable service to users of Victoria’s road network.

Mr. Matthews says the authority is constantly looking ahead to forecast what will impact roads in the future and how to better communicate with the public on issues surrounding the networks they use day-to-day.

“Part of what we’re focusing on is being totally engaged – we’re always looking at what’s happening around the world in this particular space,” he says. “I think it’s important we don’t just look at what’s happening now, but what will happen in the future.”

Mr. Matthews says VicRoads’ emphasis on community engagement and consultation is about gaining the best possible outcome for road users and the community.

This story has appeared in the Roads & Civil Works February/March 2016 edition – get your copy here today!

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