Principal Consultant, Gay Robinson Consulting & IAP2 Licensed Trainer
How long have you been in P2, and where have you worked? I started doing P2 in the 1980s when I was working with the Alberta Attorney-General’s office in communications and community relations. I was engaging stakeholders on a new piece of legislation for the Maintenance Enforcement Program. This involved talking to family lawyers, social workers, fathers who were paying – or not paying – child support; it was a fascinating process.
In the mid-90s, I started working in the energy industry. There was a huge need for oil and gas companies to engage landowners and community members before starting any new development, and I found myself gradually drawn more and more into that area. When I went out on my own in 1999, that became the main focus of my work.
Since then, I’ve worked on a wide range of projects, primarily in the resource development area.
What “big wins” have you had?
Two of my best projects were in the oil and gas industry. One was with Alberta’s energy regulator on a new policy. Now, regulators and industry don’t always see eye-to-eye when it comes to policy so we weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. But this time, we did it differently than before – talking to stakeholders before drafting the policy. It was a bit of a push to get the client to agree to the “involve” level on the spectrum, but as the project progressed, we moved closer to the “collaborate” level.
One of the things I like to do, when we come to the logical end of a process is to have a celebration and bring the stakeholders together to look at how far we’ve come and what we’ve managed to accomplish together. At the luncheon, one of the main people from the industry association stood up and said this had been the “gold standard’ for industry-regulator collaboration. I felt that we pushed the boundaries a little bit and created a win-win situation.
I was also the creator and facilitator of one of the first multi-stakeholder groups looking at area development in oil and gas industry. Prior to this time, companies had worked independently and consulted in a piecemeal manner. What I was hearing from both the regulator and the community was it would be great to sit down and talk about all the development in the community at the same time. This was the first time we brought everyone together in one group and I had to get all the companies at the same table. These were all competitors, and it wasn’t normal to have the competitors sitting down together with the community. It worked out well from the engagement perspective, but unfortunately for the companies involved, the gas reservoir didn’t turn out to be as big as they had hoped for – but from the standpoint of community relations and the regulator, it was a big win for the companies.
Have you had a “Golden Learning Moment”?
There’s been a whole series of such moments that, tied together, keep reinforcing the same point: that it’s so important to ask the right questions. The question is key to a successful process. If we consult on an option or a solution rather than a problem or an opportunity, we get side-tracked: so if we just step back and re-phrase the question we’re consulting on, we find success. If you don’t ask the right questions, you’re not going to get the process you need. Ask the right questions – and don’t make assumptions.
I have one sort of piece of philosophy that’s stuck with me all these years: that it’s easier to solve the problem at the kitchen table than at the boardroom table. So if I’m working with community members, sitting down with them in their own space, rather than having it end up in a board room – or worse still, in a court room, it’s a much better process – talk to them where they live.
I’m also extremely passionate about the value of advisory groups. My colleagues laugh at me sometimes because anytime someone says “advisory group” my eyes light up: but that’s because I’ve had such great success with advisory groups.
On the wall in my office, I have that quote from Margaret Mead:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world – indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” That’s been a guiding mantra for me.
Have you seen that happening in your work?
Sure. I look at some of the history in Alberta in the oil and gas industry. When I was working at the oil and gas industry in the 90s, people were getting shot and things were getting blown up – tensions between industry and community were pretty severe. Things were heated and about to explode. So between some really leading-edge companies, the industry association and the regulator, we started to form grassroots multi-stakeholder advisory groups called “synergy groups”. They got together to talk about the problems and how to solve those problems together. I’d sit with community members who could hardly bear to sit across the table from industry people and a year later, the whole dynamic of the group had changed.
There was one case: one of the front-line guys who’d been taking the heat for all the ills of the industry: I was asking everyone, what do you want to get out of these meetings?
He said, “I just want to get my phone to stop ringing. I get all these phone calls from people who are upset with my company or what they think is my company … and I just want that to stop.”
A year later, we were meeting and I asked him, “Is your phone still ringing?” He said, “Yes – but they’re good calls!”
I was just at the Synergy Alberta Conference (annually in November), where members have been getting together for over a decade, talking about how to make things better between industry and community. It’s almost like going to a family reunion – or an IAP2 Conference! All these people that you’ve worked with over the years and they weren’t exactly happy at the beginning, but now they feel that they have a voice and they’re being heard. They’ve all drunk the Kool-Aid and they’re working together. In fact, a lot of them have become involved with IAP2 because of these connections.
How important is this sort of atmosphere, given the current state of Alberta’s economy?
It’s just as important now as it has ever been. If companies walk away and leave the stakeholders behind, they’ll lose all the goodwill they’ve built up. Alberta has seen so many cycles of good times and bad, the industry is going to come back and there’ll be a need to stay in touch with the communities. There’s a real concern that companies will default and not continue operating wells. One of my clients is the Orphan Well Association. If there’s no one financially able to take care of environmental liabilities around a well that’s shut down, then the Energy Regulator can assign the well to the OWA. Sadly, the list of “orphaned” wells is getting longer and there are a number of companies struggling to keep things going.
So we’re collaborating on the issues connected with the tough times: what do you do when companies can’t meet the lease payments; or municipalities need to sort through problems? The need to work together is still there – there are just different things we’re collaborating on.
Have you seen attitudes change towards P2?
There’s a huge increase in the number and type of organizations that now understand it’s something they need to do. But there’s a real need for education on how to do it properly, so that people “get” that p2 is not something that’s a check-box but it has to be authentic and meaningful. I’m seeing a lot of interest in the public sector on what it means for them … I’m seeing a lot of interest from municipal and provincial governments to make sure their staff understand what meaningful engagement means.
If you had anything to say to someone just getting into the P2 business …
This is really important work and can be extremely rewarding. IAP2 is a great organization to help new practitioners understand the importance of the work.