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Building trust for effective CCS community engagement

The US academic Robert Putnam sees trust as an essential characteristic for community engagement. In his book Bowling Alone, he discusses two types of trust that are relevant for a CCS proponent. One is social trust, which is trust between people, and the other is the type of trust a person may or may not have in institutions. I think social trust is applicable to proponent representatives working and possibly living in the host CCS community, while institutional trust applies to the proponent’s corporate entity.

In the case of CCS, proponents need to gauge and address community trust in the proponent and the technology, because to people unfamiliar with the technology, CCS is often seen as new and experimental.

Gaining a good understanding of community trust in the proponent and in particular the proponent’s ability to implement and manage CCS can be carried out in many ways. But, from my experience as a CCS community engagement manager, the most effective way is to engage a reputable market or social research company to undertake social research on public perceptions of the proponent and technology.

Depending on your budget, you may choose to commission quantitative (for example, attitude surveys) or qualitative (for example, depth interviews and focus groups) research or a mixture of both to understand community perceptions, and trust in your corporate identity and CCS.

You can also use the research activities to investigate community perceptions of some of the communication and participatory methods you may use to implement your strategy, identify the community’s preferred or trusted communication sources (for example newspapers versus the Internet), types of spokespeople (local community leaders or technical experts), or your key messages.

The research will provide advice as to how trust can best be built. These activities spill into a whole gamut of corporate communication and reputation-building activities that may include corporate sponsorship of a local charity or conducting school tours of the project site.

The complement to institutional trust is social trust. It is primarily created and established by representatives of the proponent working, and possibly living within the community in which the project is taking place because these representatives have frequent interactions with the community throughout the course of the project. Representatives can develop good relations with the community by being responsive to community interests and concerns and by participating in community events.

Another more formal way of building social trust is through the establishment of a community reference group. At CO2CRC I established a community reference group whose membership reflected key project stakeholders. It comprised three community volunteers, a local government member and representatives from the relevant regulatory agencies, and to address their concerns the project manager and an engineer from the company responsible for the project infrastructure such as the gas plant. I also arranged for an independent chair for the reference group, who had a strong personal commitment to the International Association of Public Participation best practice principles of community engagement.

The primary aim of the group was to provide a forum for the community and proponent to exchange information, and for the proponent to act on and be accountable for current and future project activities in a transparent manner. Practising transparency, accountability and a collaborative approach to problem solving are just three ways a proponent can demonstrate good will and build trust within the local community.

For more information on conducting social research and community engagement activities see the Communication and Engagement Toolkit for CCS Projects prepared by CSIRO and published on the Global CCS Institute's website.

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