She says clear communication and building relationships is extremely important to help the community make an informed decision. “Being able to work around the community needs and design your project, your planning, is not quick, not profitable, but it’s the only way. If the community don’t understand implications for them, they’re operating blind. The ultimate risk is having something that the community don’t feel they own, and therefore don’t use.”
Be prepared to spend a lot of your time doing things on the peripheral of the project just to build trust. “After hat you may be able to ask an indirect question or a nod of the head to set up a meeting,” she says.
Christophersen says you need to operate on two levels with your communications strategy: a basic level for the general community—succinct and visual is best—then a more detailed level for the decision-makers. “To have people make an informed decision, you have to make sure they understand all the information they’ve been given, then they can go off and talk about it. At the next meeting they can ask questions.”
He emphasises that by the end, you need to be clear on the long-term benefits for the community to ensure stakeholder ownership of the project. One of the positive aspects of this communal approach is that once you achieve buy-in, you’ll find everything easier.
“Once people see that you’re willing and able to work in the cultural framework, they’ll be more willing to participate,” he says. “People have to work together because of cultural obligations and duty and kinship. Kinship binds people together and organises them and should always be seen as positive.”
Priorities and your project
Never assume that your project is the top priority in the community. “Community members have a lot more on their plate than whatever your project is. Because there are so few leaders in each community, they get tied into any and every meeting that comes through,” explains Russ. “Other individuals are busy just surviving. Your project will come after food, family obligations, and significant cultural events. A project manager coming in has to be respectful of what the priority is for the community.”
Christophersen agrees that the many layers of bureaucracy can turn meeting attendance into a full-time job: “All sorts of agencies come out to talk about health, education, housing. Everyone is expected to turn up to these committees.”
Education is an area that project managers may also have to consider if after a talent pool to fill labour positions. Qualified labour is hard to come by, and may be a problem if one of the project’s provisos is providing employment for the community.
“We haven’t done a very good job at educating people in remote areas, specifically Aboriginal people,” Christophersen remarks. “Project managers need to know what resources are available in that community. It might be that a large number of young people have come through the education system, so how you can utilise them on the project.”
Human capital is very different in remote areas, Russ agrees. “Project management work needs to be focused more on developing human capital as well as achieving the outcomes,” she says. “You can’t take for granted that there is a labour pool there, that they have the infrastructure there to ensure they will turn up every day; you may have to factor in training and mentoring.”
However, the benefits of project success in an Indigenous context are far-reaching, she says. “It expands your world view and it will expand the community’s world view. Any project can be a fantastic exchange of knowledge and ideas and motivation and stimulation. You may not know how much passive positive influence you can have.”