The implementation of an in the field crisis management strategy requires the experience of skilled communicators prepared to deal with the acute issues to manage the dynamics of a major unfavorable decision in a region.
The sudden decision to announce the proposed building of the Traveston Crossing Dam on the Mary River in Queensland generated a hostile reaction in the Gympie region in Queensland.
Following the announcement at a public meeting attended by 2000 angry citizens the Queensland Premier announced a second dam site at Wyaralong near Boonah in preference to another controversial dam site in the Beaudesert region.
The Premier, recognizing that the Boonah and Mary River regions need to be responsibly managed in the short term to come to grips with the three year program of land acquisitions, rebuilding and the longer term redevelopment in the regions to retain the populations with new opportunities created a special Task Force concept to provide a community futures outlook which the Government could address.
Three days after the decision, the leader and three hastily recruited staff, set about developing, coordinating and implementing a strategy in the field.
The team moved into the field and as a unit to meet with the community and to coordinate as a Task Force, the activities of eight government departments to deal; with the crisis issues and to commence the longer term work of providing information, timetables and opportunities.
This review examines the first nine months of program which is now being viewed as a model for the implementation of change management on major infrastructure programs affecting communities and regions.
Amongst the most significant issues to face Australia during 2006-2007 has been the drought which has afflicted significant productive areas of the continent. The widespread drought has had significant adverse regional impacts and has generated further national debates into the short term and long term problems associated with the whole climate change issue.
In south east Queensland, the failure of the seasonal rainfall pattern during the past four years saw the need for increased water restrictions to be put in place by a number of local authorities.
The Queensland Government in a dramatic initiative in July 2006 announced that it would build two new dams in south east Queensland to supplement the existing water storage facilities. The announcements were made in the two selected regions at large and hostile community meetings in Beaudesert and Gympie to outraged regional communities.
The Premier had told the communities his Government would be generous to their requests and needs to rebuild and relocate where necessary towns and individuals. The people in the regions were making a sacrifice on behalf of the wider community and that the Government would seek to ensure that the communities were not broken up.
The research for the CFTF commenced on the job due to the urgency of the situation.
Priority one was to establish a crisis system to deal with many families and community members shattered by the announcements and to communicate widely the emergency arrangements which affected 900 people directly in the Mary River Valley and 40 in the Boonah area.
Government One Stop Shops were established, with contracted community support agencies to provide front line counseling and a local information gathering and provision centre.
Establish links in the community with key stakeholders.
Local Mayors were brought onto the CFTF, a regional group of public servants from departments was developed to meet weekly to mange across government issues.
Individual departments held coordinated meetings to manage the issues of relevant stakeholders, and the CFTF team lead by Peter Arnison, continued its visitation program
Build the independent profile of the CFTF as an operation outside the State Government process, but with top level connections and representation within the Task Force to make and implement policies to ensure that the communities in the two areas were retained in the region and that new living and commercial Research opportunities for people could be established during the three years approval and investigation process for the establishment of the dams and beyond.
The challenge was to attract short term and long term issues input from the communities and to indicate to them that whatever the future outcome was in respect of the go ahead, the opportunity existed now, for them to build their own new futures and that of their communities and towns.
As the project developed, a timetable of processes including the completion of a full Environmental Impact Study progressed. However, an active land acquisition process was underway, with special conditions for attractive lease back arrangements for farmers and business people to remain in their operations until the dam construction was formally approved and construction commenced.
The community anger and emotional reaction in the two regions continued to achieve a high profile with a strong media focus on the decision making process.
The swiftness of the decision making process by the Government to this longer term project as a consequence of water restrictions and more immediate water management programs resulted in a concentration on developing communications to support the citizens in the immediately affected area and to reassure them as individuals and as a community, that a process involving them, would have adequate time to manage the change.
The Immediate Plan
The CFTF comprised former Governor Major General Peter Arnison, the acting executive officer was brought in from the Cyclone Tracy Task Force which had dealt with a devastating emergency, senior external communications consultant Peter McCall and an office administrator.
The initial plan was to go into the area, with local authority leaders, invite them onto the Task Force and also meet with the community leaders including the organized groups fighting the decision and to detail the role through face to face contact and other communications tools.
The Task Force was made up of the Director General’s of eight Government departments and two days after formation a meeting of the group was held and attended by the representatives of the local government areas impacted to learn of the work being undertaken by the various departments to communicate with their constituent groups and stakeholders.
Landholders and farmers had a range of specific issues, emergent services were necessary from emotionally impacted families, service providers had issues with potential relocation of roads, and communities fear mass evacuations from their business areas and compensation details were complicated by uncertainty with existing mapping.
The Task Force team moved into the two communities at a range of levels to expound three key messages
- That the Task Force was the prime vehicle to assist the citizens and the communities to work to plan the future for themselves, their villages andtowns and the region should the dams proceed and that action could and should commence now.
- That all issues of immediate critical impact be identified and managed and that counseling and support agencies within the areas be addressed.
- That all questions and concerns that faced individuals, communities, groups and business and industry were collected and answered as quickly as practicable and made freely and widely available.
- That one on one meetings were available to deal with the personal issues of families as well as the community of interest issues.
The Government established centralized One Stop Shops in the two regions serviced by public servants from the Department of Communities and included independent counselors from Life Line to deal with critical emergency personal issues.
The CFTF team went into the field with its message and invited the media to attend meetings with local authorities, individuals on their properties, protest groups and community meetings.
This was constant program for the initial phase as the CFTF sought to compete with the very active political campaign being waged and defended by and against the Government.
The CFTF communicator developed its own independent web site, newsletters for each area and 1800 hotline to ensure that it established it own unique position within the high profile community focus in the two regions.
Community Management software was introduced to ensure that all contacts made to the CFTF are tracked and followed up.
The CFTF web site is the major source of information feedback with the minutes of all meetings conducted by the CFTF as a formal body and its in the field meetings on the web site, together with the questions and the answers to those questions posed at all meetings conducted by the Government agencies in the region. The CFTF collates the questions and seeks and coordinates the formal answers to ensure the community has access to all available information
The CFTF has now been operating for 10 months and has brought on eight more staff to deal with the level of community inquiry and meeting requirements to address issues raised.
Its independence has been established and it has been able to resolve more than 2000 issues raised from all sectors of the community in regards to stability of Government resources, greater certainty in mapping, the future of schools, and the adjudication of compensation issues.
To this time 18 newsletters and 12 Fact Sheets (appendix A) have been provided to the communities to provide greater degrees of information and certainty.
As the Environmental Impact Assessment is now underway, the external communications adviser having completed the 8 months establishment process has completed his task.
No formal evaluation of the activities of the CFTF has been made at this time, however direct feedback to the CFTF by community groups and individuals has been positive. The team members are dealing with sensitive issues such as the relocation of the Kandanga Cemetery and in conjunction with the Office of Urban Management, the detailed planning or relocating key elements of four towns, which will lose facilities as a result of the final development of the dam.
At Wyaralong, 28 property issues have already been resolved and the CFTF continues to negotiate with the communities in which it has affected.