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November 28, 2013

QGC resourcing the community

SVA Consulting shares its insights from facilitating the collaboration of a group of diverse organisations: QGC – a large resource corporation, a state government department, a local council and a small non-profit community organisation.

Chinchilla, a small town of around 8,000 people[i] in the Western Downs region of Queensland, is undergoing a rapid transformation. Until recently the town and its district were focused primarily on agriculture: more than 25% of Australia’s melons come from the Chinchilla shire, and the Chinchilla Melon Festival has attracted thousands of visitors since 1994.

QGC-Storage-Tank[1]
Alongside its mining activity, QGC is investing in the social infrastructure.

However, since 2006 its economy has shifted focus from agriculture to resources. Chinchilla sits in the middle of the coal-rich Surat Basin, one of the largest natural deposits of coal in the world. Over the last eight years, energy companies have been investing billions of dollars in projects to extract and transport coal and coal-seam gas across Australia and the world.

QGC (a BG Group Company) has committed $150m over the last four years ensuring its mining activity is accompanied by investment in the regional social infrastructure. One of the flagship projects in QGC’s sustainable communities program is the establishment of a ‘Multi-Tenant Service Centre’ (the ‘Centre’) – funded by QGC ($1m) and the Queensland State Government ($2.6m). The Centre is to be a local hub for community services with facilities designed for the long term.

Co-located community services can share overhead costs, collaborate more easily, and together provide a holistic solution to client needs.

QGC engaged SVA Consulting to support the stakeholders to develop a strategic and operational plan for the Centre. The plan would answer questions including: how will the Centre be managed and governed? What services will the Centre provide? What revenue and cost structure will ensure the Centre is financially sustainable?

Diverse allies working together for the community

In addition to QGC, the project had three other major stakeholders.

Firstly, the Queensland Government’s Department of Communities which along with QGC would fund the land and building. Since 2007, the Government has been investing in similar buildings in a number of regional centres.

“These centres are really valuable to the community. Co-located community services can share overhead costs, collaborate more easily, and together provide a holistic solution to client needs,” says James Finn, Manager – Community Services, Department of Communities.

In a time of reduced public service spending, the Department of Communities is, more than ever, encouraging partnerships between corporate, government and non-government organisations to support human and community services.

Secondly, the Western Downs Regional Council (WDRC) wanted to ensure that the new building plans successfully integrate the Centre into the town.

QGC-CFSC-current-site[1]Current home of the Chinchilla Family Support Centre which will manage the new Centre.

Finally, but most importantly, Chinchilla Family Support Centre (CFSC), the local non-profit that has represented vulnerable community members and advocated for services to meet their needs since 1979. CFSC was established by local community members to provide support through severe droughts and today is the first point of contact for the community. As a Neighbourhood Centre, it provides information, referral, community development, and visiting services. For CFSC, as with many community organisations, resources have been minimal and the board and management have years of experience delivering much needed services at minimal cost.

The Centre is the culmination of planning begun by CFSC and WDRC in 2007.

This group of stakeholders was incredibly diverse: a global energy corporation, local and state governments, and the relatively small (but critical!) community non-profit which would manage the new Centre.

How the group worked together to produce the plan

The first step was to get all stakeholders to agree on the process. A steering committee was formed with representatives from each stakeholder. SVA Consulting developed a draft process to produce the plan. In the inaugural meeting, we outlined the context: how the town was changing, why the Centre was being developed, and how each stakeholder was involved.

SVA Consulting then facilitated a conversation on what questions the group wanted to see answered by the plans.

“Getting the group together was critical – it ensured everyone had a chance to share the questions they thought needed to be answered,” says Brett Smith, QGC’s Vice-President Sustainability.

Following this, the partners agreed on a regular schedule of steering committee meetings. A visible, consistent symbol of partnership, these vital meetings provided regular milestones through the project – giving the planning process continual momentum.

…the group determined what success would look like, that is the impact they wanted the Centre to have in the community based on current and future needs.

With such a large group of partners, however, it was challenging to get agreement on every aspect of the project simply through steering committee meetings. Critical work was completed by sub-groups of partners. The larger group trusted the sub-group to make decisions on its behalf. For example:

  • QGC and the Department of Communities met monthly to discuss progress on the construction of the physical building. The cost of real estate in Chinchilla was rising rapidly, and all partners recognised that one of their biggest challenges would be identifying an appropriate site within the budget. This sub-group identified and signed-off on the site.
  • SVA Consulting and CFSC worked together to develop a financial model outlining how the Centre could be sustainable into the future.
  • CFSC’s Board and management outlined how its governance and management structures would mature to accommodate the changes required to operate a larger Centre.

In addition, the partnership worked through key aspects of the plan systematically. This included:

  • Establishing a vision and goals. Representatives of each stakeholder group met in-person in Chinchilla for a workshop to clarify ‘what kind of a centre’ was needed. In the workshop, the group determined what success would look like, that is, the impact they wanted the Centre to have in the community based on current and future needs. They agreed on a vision statement, drafted a set of criteria for selecting tenants, prioritised the goals of the Centre, and developed ideas for how these goals could be achieved.
  • Developing a business model and financial projections. CFSC and SVA Consulting worked together to understand the financial drivers of the Centre (e.g. occupancy rates, room rental rates, installation of a commercial kitchen), and propose targets. Most important was the sensitivity analysis to understand which key drivers of revenue and costs should be tracked.
  • Outlining the operational framework. Frank (and sometimes challenging) conversations between partners clarified the appropriate governance and legal structure. The group also agreed on necessary policies, the potential risks and how they could be mitigated.
  • Drafting the implementation timeline. The group agreed on the role of each partner during the ‘implementation phase’ from plan completion to the Centre opening.

Overall, the planning phase between the key stakeholders was a success. A plan was developed and signed-off from all stakeholders. As the project gained momentum, a suitable site for the building was identified and purchased, and all systems are ‘go’ for the building to be constructed.

Additionally, the planning process helped CFSC transition to a new stage in its evolution: becoming better prepared to meet increased demand for its services. It also strengthened the working relationship between QGC and the Queensland Government.

“We are really happy with where we got to. It wasn’t always easy: working with organisations with different perspectives never is. But by the end we all had a strong working relationship, a clear plan, and confidence that this project would work,” reports Smith.

Lessons learnt

Through the process, all partners learnt valuable lessons.

1.    In projects requiring collaboration, an independent organisation plays a valuable role.

Collaboration between multiple stakeholders is always challenging, especially if the stakeholders have diverse perspectives. Each partner likely has different interests, goals, concerns and perspectives on the way things should be.

Not having a vested interest, an independent organisation can engender the trust of all partners. It can invest time listening to (and understanding) the perspective of each partner ensuring their interests are represented. It can also invest the necessary time to maintain momentum through project management: ensuring regular meetings and accountability for project deliverables. (See Macquarie: catalyst for cancer charity collaboration.)

2. The independent organisation needs to establish credibility as being neutral.

Through this project, SVA Consulting learnt that the independent organisation needs to continually establish its credibility as being independent rather than assume it is given. This is particularly relevant if it is being funded by one or some of the partners.

We learnt the importance of openly discussing the pros and cons of the options and allowing the group to come up with the best solution themselves.

QGC’s brief for SVA Consulting was that it help the partners reach agreement on the optimum way to meet the interests of each. But perception of independence can strike at the heart of credibility.

This came up in relation to the governance structure. We recommended one of several proposed options, however this was perceived as not giving each partner’s preferences equal consideration. We learnt the importance of openly discussing the pros and cons of the options and allowing the group to come up with the best solution themselves. This allowed us to maintain credibility as a truly neutral party.

In a situation where one partner funds the independent organisation, extra care must be taken to ensure that the interests of other partners are understood, respected and represented.

3. At the start, ensure each stakeholder has the opportunity to explicitly discuss with the independent organisation how they hope to benefit.

It can be easy to assume what each stakeholder is hoping to get out of the partnership, but the answers can sometimes be surprising. An opportunity for each stakeholder to specifically and individually articulate their concerns is important.

If a stakeholder isn’t clear on all the ways that they might benefit from a project, discussion can bring clarity. This can result in greater buy-in and also helps ensure that activities are tailored to maximise the benefit to all.

This collaboration commenced with a meeting with everyone in a room. SVA Consulting asked what questions everyone wanted to answer – and used this to inform the activities of the partnership. It continued with SVA Consulting meeting regularly with each of the stakeholders.

“For CFSC, spending time at the start with Duncan [Lockard, SVA Consulting’s project lead] was important in developing an understanding relationship with the CFSC’s team,” says Doreen Goldsmid, CFSC Manager.

4. Move slowly, keeping everyone aligned at every stage.

One challenge of collaborative projects is that alignment must be reached at each stage of the process. If you proceed without agreement, the process may stall without a reference point (a ‘stake in the ground’) to which all partners can come back, and build from. This can leave partners confused or concerned.

As a result, it is critical to move forward in appropriately ‘small steps’ – ensuring everyone is aligned at each marker. When in doubt, communicate, communicate, communicate!

It was important to take things slowly to ensure that in the process, there was a solid understanding of each stakeholder’s roles and responsibilities.

In this project, SVA Consulting took too big a step recommending the governance framework before partners had a chance to discuss what they hoped it would be.

This caused a number of issues which would likely have been easier to address if we had moved slower – with an opportunity for an open discussion of needs before identifying the options available, evaluating them together and reaching a joint decision on legal structure.

These aren’t easy conversations to have, but by jumping too fast from the options available to the recommendation of a particular structure we gave the impression of riding roughshod over some of the partners in the project.

As Goldsmid says “It was important to take things slowly to ensure that in the process, there was a solid understanding of each stakeholder’s roles and responsibilities. How the project evolved, and the requirements moving forward for a successful and sustainable strategic plan was time consuming as all parties needed their concerns heard and discussed. Taking time for these conversations and being transparent and clear in the negotiations was important to us.”

5. Having an independent organisation manage the project doesn’t obviate the need for partners to maintain their own relationships.

Independent organisations, such as SVA Consulting, have a valuable role in facilitating collaborations. However, there is a risk that the partners develop the strongest relationships with the independent organisation rather than each other. As the independent organisation will inevitably step away from the project, the partners need to develop their own strong relationships through the process as well. To achieve this, strong relationships could be an identified process outcome – and activities could be specified to work towards these enhanced relationships.

For example, throughout this project it was immensely valuable for QGC’s local staff in Chinchilla to connect with CFSC independently. This enabled them to hear CFSC’s concerns through honest conversations – and build a stronger, longer-lasting partnership.

6. Build capability alongside the planning process.

The value of a detailed plan is limited, if partners do not have the capabilities to successfully execute on the plan. By bringing in SVA Consulting to support the partnership, QGC anticipated that SVA Consulting would use its experience in planning and collaborations to support CFSC in developing its capabilities to run the Centre.

As a result, SVA Consulting spent time working alongside CFSC staff in Chinchilla involving them in what needed to be in the plan, how it should be structured and the mechanics of developing it.

According to Goldsmid, the regular meetings with open and transparent discussion of the elements helped to clarify the plan’s direction and strengthen the organisation.


If you’d like to know more, contact Nick on nelliott@socialventures.com.au


Endnotes

[i] Chinchilla  Economic & Demographic Profile Lawrence Consulting 2012.

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