December 19, 2018
Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs) for major government-funded infrastructure projects have been gaining momentum in Canada in 2018.
CBAs provide an opportunity to leverage multibillion-dollar infrastructure investments to unlock additional economic, social and environmental benefits. Such benefits would maximize the value of public dollars on top of the benefits accruing from the infrastructure itself.
While CBAs can be useful tools, getting them right is essential to ensuring that they create meaningful and relevant benefits for communities. In a report released earlier in 2018, we drew a number of lessons about successful community benefits by looking at several case studies and speaking with a range of stakeholders. What we learned is that the success of a CBA depends on how well the community is defined, engaged and empowered throughout the planning and decision-making processes.
But what exactly are community benefits?
In a nutshell, community benefits are the additional social, economic or environmental benefits provided to local communities by leveraging infrastructure funding. These benefits can include local job creation and training opportunities for those disadvantaged in the labour market, social procurement to purchase goods and services from local businesses or social enterprises, improvement of public spaces or any other benefit identified by the community.
Community benefits are usually achieved through CBAs that can take the form of a private agreement between the developer and the local community, a contract between the developer and the government, or a three-way agreement among the developer, the government and the community. In addition to CBAs, community benefits can be achieved through social procurement clauses, as well as other policies and legislation.
For example, the Rexdale CBA for the Woodbine Casino expansion project in Toronto requires that at least 40 per cent of new hires at the casino, and at least 10 per cent of apprentices and tradespeople working on construction, come from the local community and equity-seeking groups across the city. In addition, this CBA includes a $5 million investment in a childcare centre for local casino workers that will operate in extended hours matching those of the workers, as well as a 10 per cent annual target for procurement through local or diverse suppliers. This CBA was the result of efforts by a coalition of local community groups, labour groups and non-profits led by the Toronto Community Benefits Network, which ran the Rexdale Rising campaign.
If done right, CBAs have the potential to transform the way governments purchase, build, employ and think about economic development. However, their impact can only be maximized if communities are meaningfully engaged in all stages of the process. Furthermore, policymakers often find it challenging to define who the community is in the context of a specific infrastructure project.
CBAs have the potential to transform the way governments purchase, build, employ and think about economic development. However, their impact can only be maximized if communities are meaningfully engaged in all stages of the process.
How should ‘community’ be defined?
Research tells us that there is no single answer to this question. Rather, there are a number of ways in which community can be defined in relation to an infrastructure project. These include:
- Geographic approaches (e.g. people living within a specific distance of a project’s location, within the boundaries of municipal/regional governments or within specific service delivery catchment areas)
- End-users of a completed infrastructure project
- Self-selecting groups with an interest in the project
- Disadvantaged and equity-seeking groups
- Any and every individual or group that may be impacted by the development
This means that identifying the appropriate definition of ‘community’ in the context of a particular project is not a simple task. There is no one-size-fits-all definition or approach to determining who forms the community. Based on the particular context, policymakers must adopt a combination of place-based and population-based strategies to determine the appropriate definition.
It is critical, however, to recognize that in large part, the community defines itself. Communities do not come into being as a result of public investment, but are pre-existing and dynamic ecosystems with existing networks and their own unique characteristics. Communities desire their own voice in the process of defining, articulating and negotiating the benefits that they wish to see through an infrastructure project.
Governments, then, should not be overly prescriptive in their approach to defining community. Indeed, governments have a responsibility to ensure the inclusion of a diverse range of voices at the decision-making table and to proactively remove barriers to participation for marginalized groups.
How can governments engage communities effectively?
The tension between top-down and bottom-up processes is one of a handful of challenges that governments face in defining and engaging communities in the development of CBAs. Similar tensions arise around the push for firm targets and legally-binding agreements from communities, which frequently conflicts with the flexibility and non-binding aspirational targets often preferred by some other stakeholders.
Moreover, both communities and governments face capacity challenges. While communities want deeper and longer-term involvement in planning and decision-making processes, they often lack the necessary resources. Similarly, governments may not have the expertise to conduct the type of robust engagement work necessary to effectively involve communities. Indeed, many communities have a deep distrust in government structures and traditional modes of consultation.
To overcome these tensions and challenges, and to ensure meaningful inclusion of community voices in defining community benefits, governments should adhere to a set of guiding principles.
Guiding principles for successful community engagement
- Accountability, transparency and trust
- Inclusion and accessibility
- Equity and social justice
- Uncovering and leveraging community networks
- Fostering community capacity
- Engaging early and often
While the definition of community varies on a project-by-project basis, these core principles remain relevant for every project and at each stage of the community benefits process.
Striking the right balance
In pursuing CBAs, the main challenge for governments is striking the right balance between ensuring that communities are well-defined and representative, and giving communities the autonomy to self-organize and speak for themselves. To do so effectively, governments should play a supportive role – firstly, by acknowledging the existing capacity and networks within the community, and secondly, through capacity-building efforts and providing resources where needed. For example, an identified best practice for promoting the inclusion of diverse voices is to support the mobilization of a coalition of community groups representing the various interests at stake.
Finally, in order to truly empower communities, the core focus of CBAs must be on the most disadvantaged – both in process and in outcome. This means ensuring that the most marginalized voices are proactively included at the decision-making table, and that they ultimately benefit the most from the CBA that follows. By putting equity at the centre of economic development, community benefits can create shared prosperity and empower communities to build lasting social capital.