Good Neighbours

We’ve been ‘con-formed’ by our neighbours. They asked for our block’s ‘tolerance and understanding’ during their building project – via email through our owner’s corporation and one week after they’d moved out to a rental property on the other side of the river.

That’s when we found out that the ‘build’ would take nine months.

The first week was awful – jackhammers breaking up the thick 19th century brick wall, clouds of dust and trucks blocking our narrow driveway. From 7am to the soundtrack of commercial radio. At least four people in our small apartment block are freelance and work from home.

We feel aggrieved and powerless. We’ve all renovated our apartments at some time or another. We get it. People build. But we’d like to know what’s happening from week to week, so we can plan and make alternative arrangements when needed. It’s a major building project that must have been in the planning for over a year.

What adds injury to insult it that they aren’t here to talk with face-to-face. Nor are they sharing in our discomfort.

In terms of engagement with those who could be affected or who’d be interested, they did the bare minimum. They told their neighbours on either side, but didn’t bother with the apartment dwellers behind them, even though their builders need to access the site from our block.

It felt like a case of ‘con-form’ as coined by Andrew Coulson, @engage2act Director.

Coulson triggered a lively conversation among practitioners in the Engage2Act collective, resulting in a dictionary of ‘non-engagement’ terms like ‘non-sultation’ and ‘in-solve’. All a bit of tongue-in-cheek banter, but there’s no smoke without a fire. Four times in the last few months, for instance, I’ve been asked to conduct ‘meaningful’ engagement – recruit participants from diverse and hard to reach groups, facilitate sessions and write a compelling report – in three weeks.

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One community I worked with recently felt like they were being ‘non-sulted’ or ‘in-solved’, judging by the heat with which they challenged a project team about the possible locations for a semi-industrial facility in their regional town.

How come we’re only hearing about this now?!

“Why are you talking to John* about buying him out if you haven’t already made a decision?!”

“Why didn’t you tell everyone about this meeting?”

“Don’t tell me you want our feedback. You never responded to my email!”

“You’ll build this damn thing, go back to the city and leave us with noise and lights and ruin our peace and quiet.”

To me it felt like it was the sense of ‘being done to’ that was behind the emotions in the room. A bit like our experience with our neighbours, though on a much bigger scale.

I know that the project team’s intentions are good. They were doing the opposite of my neighbours and were talking to the community early. They had talked with people one-on-one, in person, by phone and by email. They had letter dropped.

 Going to community early takes courage and is a sign of the trust to come with an organisation on the project pathway. But understandably, people do not often see it like that in their worry and anxiety about impact.

The team were caught a little by surprise and will have to work hard to demonstrate to the community that they genuinely want their views on the proposed locations, and that they are not paying lip service to community engagement.

Unlike my neighbours.

*Name has been changed