Five Reasons Why Infrastructure Sustainability Assessments Fail to Manage Community Risk #2

This is the second in a series of five concise posts exploring common community engagement failures in infrastructure planning. It follows on from an introduction of the potential benefits and shortcomings of diversity of world views in the Multicriteria Analysis (MCA) study team. This post considers how issues of material concerns to communities must be identified for MCA to be successful in managing the risk of community opposition.

Reason #2: Failure to focus on what matters to affected communities

Decision theory asks us to be clear on why a decision needs to be made and what that decision is.    

Infrastructure project owners often manage the risk of feasibility studies growing in duration and cost by breaking down feasibility and design into manageable chunks. Each chunk has tightly focused questions to be answered by that phase of work. An objective of such ‘decision gates’ is halting fatally flawed concepts early so that resources can be diverted into more promising prospects or identifying aspects of project performance that needs to be significantly re-thought.

Similarly, the public participation framework of the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) Quality Assurance Standards requires framing of the design challenge explicitly as a ‘problem statement’. The intent is for engagement projects to communicate the important decision to be made and focus stakeholder expectations on that and not related challenges.

Effective MCA then, will focus decision-makers on what is a material issue or what matters in the decision even when what matters if difficult to quantify.

In public sector decisions, deciding what is material and to who it is material is not always as easy as it is in the private sector. The business-as-usual approach is to extract objectives from government policy statements and strategy documents. Policies, it is argued, are legitimised by elections and elected member consultations, and government strategies often involve extensive consultation to identify community interests.  As we have seen with Sydney’s WestConnex, Melbourne’s East West Link toll road or Perth’s Freight Link, this is a necessary step but will not always be sufficient.

The risks of engaging stakeholders early in projects are often exaggerated but if involving affected parties in some or all stages of the MCA is not supported by a political sponsor, the MCA team can still incorporate social research expertise and those that have acquired particular knowledge of a community or interest group (particularly the most vulnerable) as a proxy for that voice.  

Often a group of experienced planners and design engineers will have valuable collective knowledge of a community’s values and expectations. With skilled facilitation, this knowledge can be applied in developing MCA criteria.

With appropriate community profiling, stakeholder/issues mapping, assessment of participants’ experiences and sensitive facilitation, members of the design team can role-play the positions of key interest groups to ensure these perspectives are not overlooked in developing a comprehensive set of criteria. In-depth Key Informant Interviews can broaden the range of interests understood and result in more robust articulation of community objectives and criteria.

Techniques that social researchers may use to identify any overlooked perspectives on objectives and criteria include ‘Social Actor Analysis’ and examination of ‘Outrage Factors’.

Social Actor Analysis involves ‘unpacking’ the language and images used to describe groups of stakeholders in order to obtain a deeper understanding of the interests represented by such a label and surface unconscious bias in the group. It can involve scrapbooking from magazines and websites or analysis of street photography and is especially well-received by design teams that have not worked together before.

The concept of Outrage Factors was developed by Peter Sandman and colleagues and can be thought of as the characteristics of a policy, program or project that will tend to cause concern to affected people and therefore can inform design of option evaluation criteria. Some of these factors are:




Project presents as no control or low input by stakeholders


Proponent has lied or has a record of ‘spin’


Proponent ignores or attack stakeholders


Community gets risk; proponent gets the benefit


Hazard is forced on a community

Nature of hazard

Man-made, artificial or industrial


Activity or context is unfamiliar (“representativeness heuristic” bias)


Previous events stick in mind (related to “availability heuristic” bias)


Inherently feared (eg contamination, fall in the value of home)

Catastrophic potential

Potential changes are large scale and concentrated in time


A change is not studied or the science appears to be disputed

Moral relevance

Proponent’s business or style of operation offends a majority

Dealing with conflicting objectives and trade-offs are at the heart of MCA processes and dealing with them early in the project lifecycle adds value. Even with the paucity of data on the problem, criteria, options and performance measures, MCA tends to focus subsequent collection of data and reduces the collection of masses of data that will not have a bearing on any decisions.

When faced with competing objectives it can be challenging to identify a single, high-level objective. A useful sequence to identify a high-level objective is to:

  1. Brainstorm the most important things that really matter to decision-makers
  2. Translate these into a series of objectives
  3. Separate these objectives into ‘enablers’ and ‘outcomes’
  4. Place the objectives into a hierarchy

The step of separating of enablers and outcomes is useful because enablers usually correspond to pre-conceived positions and outcomes tend to correspond to a bundle of interests or needs. We wish to avoid positions as they ‘anchor’ deliberation and can limit creativity and therefore dthe evelopment of consensus. An ‘enablers-outcomes diagram’ can help place objectives in a hierarchy. Is shows visually the relationship between enablers or project options (perhaps a complex bundle of road/rail alignment decision and associated land value capture measures) on the left of the diagram, and fundamental policy outcomes on the right. Mapping
these relationships helps to quickly gain a high-level understanding of the problem arena and moves us towards identifying associated evaluation criteria.

Such techniques map cause and effect and work by:

  • promoting communication between technical experts
  • building a common understanding of lived experience
  • integrating divergent world views and knowledge from diverse sources including key informant interviews
  • encouraging robust thinking about cause and effect relationships
  • identifying information gaps, sources and prioritising research directly relevant to potential evaluation criteria
  • disclosing the rationale for expert judgements so promoting accountability

Key points #2:

MCA must focus decision-makers on what matters in the decision even when what matters if difficult to quantify. Finding out what
matters to which stakeholders is a process design challenge and the study team should incorporate social research expertise and those with particular knowledge of a community or interest group.