Gaining approval from legislative and regulatory bodies can be a most daunting assignment, even for projects that provide genuine lasting public benefits. The least hint of controversy can cause delays and increase costs. But by proactively managing a few critical lessons learned, proponents will be well-positioned to focus their resources on the assignments that lead to success.
The energy-from-waste (EfW) experience is instructive in this regard. Despite global success using technology that addresses one of the most intractable policy issues—managing waste locally while generating clean, renewable power—the industry continues to face opposition from groups too quick to label it “controversial.”
What's a Controversy?
“Controversial” projects share certain characteristics. Usually they are expensive, requiring a multimillion dollar investment; they can be disruptive, with effects that impact an entire region; and the approval and development processes can take many years.
Quite often such projects set a precedent, uniquely positioning a municipality or government as either an innovator or a pariah, which has the added effect of creating a heightened level of awareness for the project across the board.
The Business Case
In the face of controversy, project proponents should develop a business case that establishes the merits of the project in a way that goes beyond costs and revenue. From both public and private perspectives, a solid business case must:
- Solve a long-term problem while enhancing the portfolio of fundamental public goods;
- Present a local, made-in-my-backyard solution that puts a fence around potential spillovers, ensuring problems created by the project affect only those who benefit from the proposal or have a direct connection to the project;
- Focus on sustainable attributes and broader public benefits, such as renewable energy, GHG (greenhouse gas) reduction, economic development and value-added jobs;
- Demonstrate a long-term commitment to continuous investment in community renewal and quality of life; and
- Complement existing infrastructure plans with state-of-the-art equipment supporting a progressive policy outlook.
In other words, money is not always the right reason to proceed, because then it’s a race to the bottom to find the lowest price, not a process focused on funding a well-informed and well-balanced solution.
Setting the Political Stage
Establishing a relationship with a respected, independent politician is an essential early step. This star candidate will have to speak positively about the project and the vendors. He/she should understand the political (electoral) opportunities and risks of the project and be willing to stand up to an impetuous council, strident opponents and a sensationalizing media. In short, he/she must be willing to stake his/her reputation and career on the result.
Creating a Favorable Political Majority
With a political champion on your side, a favorable political majority can be created by aligning project goals with legislative and regulatory objectives. This can best be done by highlighting the technological, political and financial benefits of the project within the context of a broader policy spectrum. In the case of waste management in general, and EfW in particular, this might include a series of statements, key messages, presentation slides or briefing notes explaining how a municipal EfW project satisfies international, federal, provincial/state goals related to renewable energy, sustainable environmental practices, technological innovation and economic renewal. For the local audience, the alignment may come in the form of value-added job creation, increased property tax assessment and alternative sources of revenue.
It is also important for project proponents to understand if they are driving a wedge or breaking new ground. Can EfW be considered part of the public health infrastructure, like a new water treatment facility? Does it diversify the energy system, or is it just another waste disposal option? Does the government support brownfields or greenfields development and to what extent?
Managing the Approvals Processes
In seeking to produce a transparent and predictable result regardless of time or cost, public officials do not face the same expectations as private vendors, so the process seldom reflects a balance of interests. Whereas private companies want to economize on costs and reduce timelines, public officials seek to maximize citizen input and minimize unnecessary externalities. Moreover, since proponents typically know more about the proposed solution than the regulators, the latter always will battle against the challenge of “hidden information,” essentially trying to close the knowledge gap (between what is claimed and what can be controlled) before recommending approval on behalf of taxpayers and citizens.
The real challenge with any approvals process is elevating the quality of the technical deliberations so that regulators and proponents share a common and mutually acceptable level of understanding.
Negotiating the Deal
Once a vendor has been selected, the next step is to stop selling and move the project managers, engineers, planners, operations personnel (and anyone else the client requests) to the table, each of whom should be focused on negotiating a win-win agreement.
If the preferred vendor is from another country, which is increasingly common, it is prudent to hire some homegrown talent who understand the local language and business culture and who are also most familiar with the political geography of the community. Canadians, Americans, and Europeans hold distinctive world views and, therefore, place different values on both the process and results of contractual negotiations.
The approval of a new EfW plant in the Durham Region of Ontario offers some insight. Provincial regulators have noted that in the future they would like to have the preferred vendor selected prior to the approvals application so the technology is known and the maximum amount of expertise is at the table from the earliest possible stage.
Municipal staff found community value by including a cost of maintenance provision and a clause to protect a prescribed residual value of the infrastructure in the contract. The municipality also insisted on architectural enhancements to mitigate the appearance of an industrial plant.
When the deal is right, there may be an opportunity to share long-term profits or to market secondary products, such as heat, syngas, GHGs, etc., collaboratively. It is also critical that both parties are open to setting unregulated standards, such as sustainability measures, elevated recycling rates and on-site emissions reporting.
One strong political leader may drive the project, but it is critical that the project team engage talents from a cross section of disciplines.
For a municipality, this may require that employees be seconded from other departments, which means finding a balance between policy-specific knowledge and other forms of mission-critical experience, such as familiarity with approvals and regulations (possibly gained in another department), project management (dealing directly with vendors and consultants), corporate history (gained through years of employment) or diplomacy (by virtue of reporting directly and frequently to the sitting members of council).
Political interaction should be delegated to the “diplomats,” those people with the authority and finesse to speak on sensitive issues on behalf of the proponents.
The most critical aspect of managing internal resources is to support front-line employees and deflect any/all public blame, anger and frustration, so that the professional staff are never subjected to abuse of any kind.
Principles for engaging outside resources are straightforward enough. Hire expert lawyers, consultants, engineers, advocates and communicators whose track record, expertise, brand and reputation will mitigate, if not entirely eliminate, any questions about process, methodology, competence, thoroughness and objectivity.
Then deploy the best presenter from each firm. This person is often not the same as the technical expert studying the issues. A poor communicator may raise more questions than answers, even if his or her responses are accessible and accurate. It is much better to inspire confidence in a critical public audience via a skilled presenter than it is to explain all the technical minutia to the point of boredom.
In the face of intractable public policy challenges, communities everywhere are searching for new, innovative solutions. And because new often means unknown or controversial, it usually portends a long and difficult road to approval and implementation. But it doesn‘t mean that beneficial alternative approaches are impossible, even in the face of citizen opposition and a skeptical media. With a diligent, prescribed strategy based on lessons learned, proponents will be well-positioned with a business plan focused on genuine community benefits beyond a revenue stream, the support of a strong political champion and engagements of a balanced, well-rounded team.
Combined with a dedicated and collaborative public affairs and communications campaign, executed with patience and diligence, the process of winning over public opinion and acquiring regulatory approval becomes quite manageable.
The author is president and CEO, PresterJohn Public Affairs, Toronto.
Part two of the Community Relations Series will appear in the March/April issue.