Many floodplain managers find it difficult, and a little daunting, to engage with communities in the development of flood studies and floodplain risk management plans. This is because they normally have a background in engineering and planning, with little or no training and experience in the social sciences where the field of community engagement sits. They also may be concerned about the broad range of responses that could be forthcoming from members of the community. More fundamentally, the fields in which they are trained rely heavily on the use of logic, alien to the apparent chaos of communities.
At the recent Floodplain Management Australia Conference, I presented a paper on 'How Can We Improve Community Engagement for Floodplain Management?'. The room was packed - not I'm sure a testament to my presentation skills or profile, rather the floodplain managers' recognition of the need to improve in this area.
I made a blunt point to start the presentation: "You only get one chance with community engagement to get it right; with a report you can submit several versions til you get it right'. This seemed to resonate with (hopefully not scare) those in the audience. The construction of an appropriate and well-conceived community engagement plan is a critical start to achieving a successful result, not only based on number of participants, but also the quality and usefulness of the community insight and information.
Based on psychological and sociological evidence relating to why (and why not) people and communities engage in floodplain risk management, I concluded my presentation with the following eleven hints for effective community engagement plans:
1. Get to know the community in the study area e.g. using demographic data, speaking with community leaders
2. Advise residents, businesses etc. early of the flood study/plan process and how they can be involved
3. Elicit local knowledge about flooding by encouraging people to tell their flood stories to build trust. Note: two articles in this issue of Floodplain Manager show the power of local knowledge of indigenous people through warning others about flood risks.
4. Determine the location and timing of the engagement, based on the desires of local people
5. Tap into existing social networks
6. Use maps and photos, rather than text, as engagement tools
7. Close each phase of engagement, by reporting back to the community on what they told you e.g. survey results
8. Use a participatory approach throughout the process e.g. a community reference group to help plan, implement and evaluate the engagement
9. Tap into the engagement skills and experiences of local engagement experts e.g. from local councils, emergency agencies
10. Use multiple engagement techniques that suit different groups, genders, ages etc. in the community
11. Use non-technical language - put yourself in the place of a person in the community with no flood engineering or planning knowledge
My paper is available here.