When new environmental regulations in a major metropolitan area prompted the need for a significant infrastructure overhaul, an Australian water authority had a massive challenge. Because of new rules for handling storm water, work crews would have to dig up and upgrade more than 200 underground sewage pump stations located in neighborhoods throughout the city and suburbs. Most of the stations were located under people’s yards and gardens or under the roads in front of their houses.
Consequently, the $900 million capital project was initially met with strong community resistance because of the disruption to private property and local roads.
In light of the negative public reaction at the outset and regulatory pressure to complete the work within a tight timeframe, leaders of the water agency decided to take an alliance approach to deliver the project. They agreed to share both risks and rewards with the construction firms that would partner in the work—with the intention of offering motivation for all parties to get the job done right, without controversy, and on schedule.
Although the pump stations being upgraded were located over divergent types of terrain, the construction tasks involved were relatively straightforward. What made the project complicated was community resistance that could jeopardize the pace and overall success of the undertaking.
The alliance engaged JMW for support in agreeing to a collaborative approach to executing the project that would help ensure meeting their targets. The work began with senior leaders in an effort to generate alignment around what success for the project meant for all involved, and what it would require.
In initial discussions, it became clear that community relations had conventionally been a peripheral part of such infrastructure efforts. In most cases, it was almost an afterthought addressed by a designated Community Relations Team disconnected from the actual work being done. Whenever members of the community were upset about a disruption caused by an infrastructure repair or alteration, there would be some sort of after-the-fact outreach in an attempt to appease people.
Over the course of discussions and development sessions facilitated by JMW, a decision was made to integrate community relations into the work being done by construction teams, and to elevate it as a key success factor. The alliance partners agreed that construction crews themselves would “own” the community relations component of the work versus having it continue to be a siloed aspect of the project considered after community members had registered complaints.
JMW supported senior leaders as they cascaded messaging about the alliance approach and the new community relations imperative throughout the ranks of the 700 people involved in the undertaking.
As a result of the work, all stakeholders had a clear line of sight to the collective aspiration: An on-time, on-specification, on-budget system overhaul unimpeded by community resistance—one where the community’s concerns were a forethought versus an afterthought. Each of the 200 sewage pump upgrades became a project in and of itself—with new challenges based on the location and terrain, and unique resident concerns to address proactively.
One pump station at a time, one community member at a time, the effort progressed steadily and seamlessly.
As the lead consultant on the project describes it:
Rather than dig a hole, fill it, and leave, the crews would remediate the gardens…fix the roads…address anything disrupted before they had to be asked. It got to the point where residents would come out of their homes with cups of tea and cakes for the crews. They used to want to throw mud at them. It was unprecedented.
Using this community-first approach required time and attention for each and every pump station, but in the long run saved time and money because work progressed without incident or delay. Ultimately, the upgrade was completed according to all specifications, on time, and $200 million under budget.