Effective communication has been critical to the success of Western Australia’s $170 million Mitchell Freeway Joondalup extension which is recognised as an international model for community participation in decision-making.
The development has been the subject of intense controversy since 2004. Cynical and disillusioned, local residents formed one of the State’s most successful community action groups. The WA Government made a significant commitment to this community and relied on Main Roads and its contractors Macmahon to fulfill the promise or risk losing the social endorsement necessary to deliver essential infrastructure.
The freeway project is driven by a responsive and agile communications program designed to keep the residents fully informed of the progress of the project and to carefully manage the impact of works on the community.
The integrated strategy emphasised knowledge sharing and grassroots relationships to successfully build vital understanding and trust between stakeholders. The construction team has embraced the community partnering philosophy.
The result has set a new benchmark in community relations on public infrastructure in Western Australia.
“The process developed on the Mitchell Freeway project has redefi ned how Main Roads consults with the community on major road projects.” WA Minister for Planning and Infrastructure Alannah MacTiernan, 2007. (Appendix A: 10)
The historic Mitchell Freeway development extends Perth’s major north-south artery by 4 kilometres through the growing regional City of Joondalup. The complex development includes design and construction of three bridges, traffic interchanges, a railway tunnel and track realignment, pedestrian footbridge, principal shared path and all associated structures, utilities, landscaping and public artwork. Construction is scheduled for completion in September 2008.
Engineering designs were first released in 2004 as the WA Premier unveiled a landmark policy on community consultation only months after the City of Joondalup’s elected council was sacked. The State Government faced significant pressure to deliver on this ambitious commitment, particularly in Joondalup, where the community was bitter, disillusioned and cynical of statutory decision-makers.
In January 2006, following intense media scrutiny and exhaustive consultation, the State Government supported seven major community recommendations. The changes included lowering the height of the freeway by approximately 4.5 metres and delivering the entire 4 kilometre road under a single contract, rather than in two stages.
The commitment to community and guarantee of transparent decision-making was enshrined in the strategic vision and values of Main Roads, as the responsible agency, and incorporated as a key result area in the construction contract awarded to Macmahon in September 2006.
The high profile project was also a milestone for Macmahon and the company’s largest metropolitan road project. As a public company, the organisation’s financial success and corporate reputation rested on delivering excellent outcomes within the constraints of a fixed-price contract defined by prescriptive technical requirements, a finite delivery schedule and limited flexibility.
The communications plan was founded on extensive socio-demographic data assembled during the planning stages of the development. Core issues and stakeholders were identified and their opinions were publicly documented.
A range of tools including interest group meetings, shopping centre competitions, website polls and email lists were instituted to provide an ongoing barometer of community sentiment and early warning of issues that would inevitably emerge as construction progressed. (Appendix A: 1-6)
The Construction Reference Group (CRG) provided a consistent test audience for all project decisions and a direct communications conduit to and from the wider public. All engineering designs were submitted to the CRG for comment at 15%, 85% and 100% completion.
Independent research tracked public attitude and helped sharpen communications effectiveness. (Appendix A: 7)
A public feedback register was implemented to record all queries and complaints and establish an audit trail of actions arising. The log enabled communication issues and risks to be continuously assessed.
The City of Joondalup is centred 25 kilometres north of the Perth CBD. It covers 98.9 square kilometres and is home to 158,000 people (2006). Approximately 18% of the population was born in the United Kingdom with significant representation from Italian, Polish, Chinese, South African and Malaysian groups.
The municipality experienced unprecedented population growth and transience during the project as a consequence of Western Australia’s historic resource and housing boom. The primary communications audience included 14,000 homes and business located within a 4 kilometre radius of the works plus 2,000 absentee landowners who needed to be consistently informed of the progress of the project and related issues.
The project’s target publics include but are not limited to:
1. Corporate and institutional stakeholders
- WA State Government
- Minister for Planning and Infrastructure
- Local Members of State and
- Federal Parliament
- Main Roads WA
- Public Transport Authority
- City of Joondalup
2. Local residents and community groups
- Construction Reference Group
- Connolly Residents’ Association
- Kinross Residents’ Association
- Connolly Primary School
- Currambine Primary School
- Lake Joondalup Baptist College
- Bicycle Transportation Alliance
- Joondalup Business Association
- Community and environmental interest groups
- Neighbouring residents and businesses (Kinross, Connolly, Joondalup and Currambine)
- Absentee landowners
3. Industry and road users
- Road Transport and Freight Industry
- WA Motoring Public
- Northern Suburbs Rail Commuters
- Local, State and Construction Industry Media
On appointment, one of Macmahon’s first deliverables was a comprehensive community and stakeholder engagement plan that established clear protocols for delivering timely information, building understanding, aligning expectations, demonstrating transparency and facilitating community participation. The plan was endorsed by all participants, including the CRG.
Over-arching public opinion and commitments made during the early consultation phase provided a clear framework to guide operational decision-making. The primary point of community contact was a 14-member Construction Reference Group (CRG) whose role was to assist the project team understand and resolve community issues related to detailed design and construction and to ensure the best possible outcome for the community and the State.
Project messages were personalised and hand delivered wherever possible, packaged under the theme “What is going on at the end of your street?”. This theme acknowledged the level of identification and ownership displayed by Joondalup residents while consistent graphics maximised audience recognition.
Communications activities were planned across all media providing stakeholders with a choice of information sources to suit their personal preference. Resources were allocated according to ongoing evaluation which demonstrated, for example, that community newspapers were the most important source of information for respondents (50%), followed by construction signage, word of mouth, other media and letterbox drops.
Specific activities were designed to build internal and external project relationships, showcase achievements and publicly celebrate success. These include a media launch, opening ceremonies for major structures and an ongoing programme of social, environmental and cultural activities conducted in partnership with community groups.
Formal dialogue between the project and community is facilitated through the CRG which assists the construction team to understand and resolve issues. Public participation has been encouraged in all aspects of the project.
Accurate, timely information is circulated through milestone briefi ngs and daily informal contact with CRG members. This is facilitated by Macmahon’s Community Relations Advisor who has authority to negotiate on the project’s behalf. Great emphasis is placed on face-toface contact and personal relationships with residents.
Enquiries, complaints and concerns are recorded and audited to ensure all communication is formally acknowledged with a guaranteed response time. The Community Relations Advisor is available on call 24/7 via a publicised 1800 telephone number. Main Roads’ Community Relations Representative provides additional support.
Construction activities are scheduled to minimise community inconvenience, accommodating the needs of shiftworkers, invalid residents and daily weather forecasts. Macmahon also uses its influence to broker inter-agency solutions on local road issues. In return, the team relies on community supporters to report after hours security breaches on the site or to pave the way for difficult decisions.
Proactive and reactive communications activities are guided by the communications plan which clearly describes all roles and responsibilities, approval processes, budgets and schedules. Communication tools are clearly branded and offer a choice of feedback mechanisms.
Messaging strategies are professionally prepared in collaboration between Creative Nature and Macmahon. All materials offer contact resources for people seeking additional information or assistance. These tools include independent stakeholder satisfaction surveys, regular newsletters and shopping centre displays, media releases in local press, community bulletins and stakeholder publications, press advertising, community group information sessions, site tours, letterbox drops and an interactive website at www.mitchellfreewayjoondalup.com.au (Appendix A: 1-7)
The impact of clear communication, mutual trust and shared understanding is visible in every aspect of the Mitchell Freeway project. Community members have been instrumental in defining the project vision; designing key structures; influencing daily operating routines and identifying value-added opportunities, such as environmental enhancement projects or educational activities linked with the freeway development.
At the same time, the construction team has been sufficiently agile to accommodate consultation and community design requests while successfully delivering complex infrastructure on time and on budget.
- Relocating a pedestrian/cycle path along the east side of the freeway.
- Replacing a pedestrian underpass with the Portmarnock footbridge (Pic/diagrams here). CRG members had signifi cant input to the footbridge design.
- Varying noise wall height, colour and location. Standard noise walls were varied in many locations to accommodate the preferences of from small groups of neighbours. (Backyard pic here)
- Retaining natural vegetation. CRG members were invited to walk every clearing line to agree on alignment and earmark trees for preservation. (Tree in bridge pic here)
To date, there have been no negative media stories published and fewer Ministerial queries raised than on any other infrastructure project of this scale in WA.
Today, many of the project’s most vocal critics are among its greatest supporters. (Appendix A: 8)
The Mitchell Freeway extension is scheduled to open in Q3 2008 but evaluation has been ongoing. Independent surveys in January 2007, three months after contract award, and again in January 2008, measured community sentiment and communications effectiveness against each of the campaign objectives. (Appendix A: 7)
- Objective 1 - To keep the public informed about all aspects of the project.
Random telephone sampling of 300 residents in January 2008 showed that 99% were aware of the project, compared with 97% in 2007.
In 2008, newsletters and information sheets scored 80% for both effectiveness and recall compared with 80% for effectiveness but only 27% for recall the previous year.
- Objective 2 - To foster a positive community perception of the development.
In 2008, residents said they were less concerned about possible disadvantages of the project than in the previous year. Almost half were unable to mention any disadvantages.
- Objective 3 - To avoid or mitigate any negative sentiment arising from the works.
While the number of residents experiencing problems or disruption increased in 2008, as construction peaked, all major concerns cited in the 2007 survey fell signi cantly in 2008.
Overall, the Mitchell Freeway Joondalup project has been a resounding communications success. The project is the first in Western Australia to receive an award from the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) in recognition of the public’s role in participatory decision-making. (Appendix A: 9)
The consultation and communications achievements have been applauded as best practice and adopted by Main Roads as a model for community consultation on future major projects. (Appendix A: 10)