How many PR consultants does it take to change a light bulb?

ConsultationReportPDFLink

I should have a warm and fuzzy feeling inside me after reading the self-congratulatory publication by EirGrid “Reviewing and improving our public consultation process”. It has become obvious that I, and thousands like me, have been completely wrong about EirGrid. They are clearly lovely people who have just been deeply misunderstood in their attempts to keep us in the loop.

Aw shucks, the cover picture of the little cutie listening to the old Bakelite radio starts the warmth and by the end of this extraordinary publication I felt dirty and cheap for ever doubting Fintan Sly and his Knights of the Round Table.

After paying a small fortune in taxpayer money for the ineptitude of RPS Consulting, who clearly did not learn any lessons from the PR nightmare that was the Poolbeg Incinerator; EirGrid have now turned to SLR Consulting Limited. SLR are described in this publication (which they no doubt wrote) as: “…a leading international environmental consultancy with a strong reputation for providing expert, tailored services”.

I like that word ‘tailored’, it says a lot.

SLR’s claim to fame is its authoring of “Wind Energy in Ireland: Building Community Engagement and Social Support” on behalf of the National Economic and Social Council (NESC). The report “examined the wind energy industry and its challenge of community engagement and social acceptance in Ireland and in three other jurisdictions: Germany, Scotland and Denmark”.

SLR provided over a hundred pages of carefully-crafted bunkum to allow the NESC to come to the following earth-stopping conclusions:

“i. The policy framework underpinning engagement should include an energy-transition process that is intentional, participative and problem-solving;
ii. Tailored policies, supports and structures should be developed to: (1) support local authorities, particularly to develop enhanced community engagement in their forward-planning process; and (2) enable communities, through a Community Energy Strategy, to contribute to the energy-transition process.
iii. Participatory processes of community engagement should be required for all wind-energy developments, such as the Renewable-Energy Community Engagement process outlined here;
iv. The substantive agenda around which engagement will occur should be shaped with communities and include a range of renewable-energy and energy-efficiency possibilities, as well as local value-sharing mechanisms (from community benefit to community ownership);
v. Renewable-energy intermediary actors should be certified and resourced to enable and facilitate the energy transition at a local level but also help to achieve community settlements; and
vi. A key central-level agency (such as SEAI) should be tasked to provide a learning network to which locally negotiated plans and settlements would be linked.”

These key themes of ‘con them in, buy them off, shut them up” are repeated in this latest tabloid commissioned by EirGrid.

Some quotable highlights include:

“There have been three phases of public consultation on the Grid Link Project since April 2012. Over the course of the consultation, as the project was analysed in more detail and route corridors were identified, the level of participation in the consultation increased.
Since April 2012, three focussed rounds of public consultation have taken place:
• Between April and June 2012, following the launch of the project, members of the public and other stakeholders were asked to comment on the study area map. 527 responses were received; (my bold)
• Over eight weeks between August and October 2012 we sought feedback to identify constraints that should be considered in routing the project and 278 people and groups made responses.
• Finally, from September 2013 to January 2014 we invited feedback on a number of route corridor options we had identified and in excess of 38,000 responses were received during this third consultation.” (Page 8).

Two themes emerge from this quoted passage, which are repeated throughout this hyped-up piece of drivel.

The first one is condescension at a level that is profoundly insulting to all citizens. It goes along the lines of “we promise to speak slowly and clearly and use words of one syllable because the Irish public is too thick to understand anything more complex than that”. This echoes the attitude of their Fine Gael masters.

The second is that this fatally flawed process of consultation can still be fixed at this late stage, rather than throwing out the whole Grid25 mess and starting again with a rewriting of the NREAP, following extensive public consultation.

The Aarhus Treaty is quite clear that public consultation must begin when “all options are open”.

Some decisions of the Aarhus Compliance Committee are instructive in this regard:

“To ensure proper conduct of the public participation procedure, the administrative functions related to its organization are usually delegated to bodies or persons which are quite often specializing in public participation or mediation, are impartial and do not represent any interests related to the proposed activity being subject to the decision-making.”

(Belarus ACCC/C/2009/37, ECE/MP.PP/2011/11/Add.2, April 2011, para.79)

“While the developers (project proponents) may hire consultants specializing in public participation, neither the developers themselves nor the consultants hired by them can ensure the degree of impartiality necessary to guarantee proper conduct of the public participation procedure.
Therefore, the Committee in this case finds that, similarly to what it has already observed in the past “reliance solely on the developer for providing for public participation is not in line with these provisions of the Convention” (ACCC/C/2006/16 Lithuania, para. 78).

(Belarus ACCC/C/2009/37, ECE/MP.PP/2011/11/Add.2, April 2011, para.80)

“Aside from any consequential problems arising from a failure to implement paragraph 2, some other provisions of article 6 may have been breached even with respect to those members of the public that did receive notification of the hearings in accordance with the requirements of paragraph 2. For example, the fact that construction started before the July hearings were held is clearly not in conformity with the requirement under article 6, paragraphs 3 and 4, for “reasonable time frames” and “early public participation, when all options are open.” Furthermore, it appears that the responsible authorities treated the outcome of the hearings as if it were the outcome of public participation. This would have been more acceptable if the hearings had genuinely involved all key groupings within the public concerned. As it was, the views of those who were not invited to participate in the hearings, which apparently were expressed in other ways and were well known to the authorities, do not appear to have been taken into account.”

(Kazakhstan ACCC/C/2004/2; ECE/MP.PP/C.1/2005/2/Add.2, 14 March 2005, para. 25)

On their own version EirGrid only invited consultations after the GridLink project was launched, and even then the invitation was lukewarm at best with nothing in local Dungarvan papers and no information office in County Waterford.

Too late, guys.

For example, the GridLink Stage One Report made it clear that EirGrid had started with over seventy options but only offered the public six of these options, and even those six were skewed so profoundly that it was clear the choice had already been made. Despite the current government-manufactured brouhaha over ‘the underground option’; EirGrid should have conducted a full-cycle cost/benefit analysis on overhead versus underground versus undersea cables and thereafter should have invited the public to scrutinise this analysis. Once proper consultation had occurred on this analysis, EirGrid would have been in a position to commence Stage 1. The failure of EirGrid to carry out this public consultation exercise, whilst all options were open, makes the entire project void ab initio. There is no such thing as a retrospective repair job. The process is fatally flawed, and appointing a panel headed by a judge cannot fix that.

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Another jewel of jiggery-pokery appears later:

“A key pillar of the ‘Aarhus Convention’, ratified by the Irish Government in June 2012, concerns Public Participation in Environmental Decision-Making. This requires public authorities to enable the public to comment on proposals for projects, plans and programmes relating to, or affecting, the environment. It also provides that “Each Party shall provide for early public participation, when all options are open and effective public participation can take place”.
The Aarhus Convention forms a key context within which EirGrid’s Project Development and Consultation Roadmap was prepared.” (Page 13)

Although Ireland signed the Convention in June 1998, it was the last Member State of the European Union to ratify it. Ireland’s formal instrument of ratification was lodged with the United Nations on 20 June 2012 and the Convention entered into force on 18 September 2012 (ninety days after the date of deposit of the instrument of ratification).

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The claim by EirGrid that Aarhus impacted on its initial strategies is breathtaking in its audacity. Whatever EirGrid might mean by ‘context’, the Aarhus Treaty most certainly was not allowed to influence EirGrid’s roadmap, nor was it allowed to impact on the formulation of the NREAP, which was steamrollered through with minimal public notice, let alone any public consultation. For EirGrid to claim anything else is deeply cynical on their part. They have flouted the Treaty from the inception of the Grid25 Project, and they are still consistently flouting the Treaty, by continuing with the GridLink Project despite the lack of initial consultation. A glossy publication cannot change that fact.

On Page 13 EirGrid makes much of the fact that they consulted documentation prepared by CIGRE in formulating their approach to consultation.

CIGRE describes itself thus:

“Founded in 1921, CIGRE, the Council on Large Electric Systems, is an international non-profit Association for promoting collaboration with experts from all around the world by sharing knowledge and joining forces to improve electric power systems of today and tomorrow.”

In other words, it is a power industry / energy industry think-tank funded and controlled by big business. I would hardly think that public participation looms large on its agenda.

Despite this, EirGrid lists what it perceives to be the benchmarks of CIGRE policy and then on pages 15-16 it marks its own report-card which compares its (version of its own) performance against the CIGRE principles. Not surprisingly, EirGrid awards itself an ‘A’, only narrowly missing giving itself an ‘A+’:

“Overall, it is considered that the Roadmap process – which forms the framework for the preparation of project-specific communications strategies – ensures a structured, transparent and defensible process. We believe it is generally in accordance with the principles set out in the Cigré Working Group document. Notwithstanding this, there are undoubtedly areas where it can be improved.”

It is now that the third theme emerges strongly. That of hearty self-congratulation. Despite the external report from the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators saying that there is serious trouble in Paradise, EirGrid manages to ignore this, so intent is it on slapping its own back. In fact, it is apparent that SLR Consulting were brought in to deflect the impact of the CIArb Report, which is relegated to the status of an incomplete annexure to this pantomime script.

The Chartered Institute of Arbitrators Report is best summed up with this passage:

“Notwithstanding hard work by EirGrid, a lack of public trust has emerged as an acute issue affecting EirGrid’s consultation process and the fulfilment of its mandate. EirGrid needs to address this urgently if it is to succeed in realising the ambitious Grid25 programme. We consider that the analysis of EirGrid’s consultation process contained in this report, and our recommendations will go some way to assisting EirGrid in achieving a more successful implementation of best practice consultation and meaningful public engagement. We hope that EirGrid will take this opportunity to hear what the ‘ordinary people of Ireland’ have to say, and that this Review report will encourage EirGrid to afford the public greater ownership of the consultation process going forward, so that all can input into the development of Ireland’s strategic infrastructure for the collective benefit of the whole country.” (Page 9 of the CIArb Report – Annexure 5).

Despite the gentle and non-judgemental language used by CIArb, it clearly frightened EirGrid so badly that they saw fit to run off and engage SLR to produce its sycophantic report and no doubt the glossy brochure.

The notes of the consultations conducted by CIArb with various community organisations have been embargoed by EirGrid, as they are hugely embarrassing to its cause, with the following flimsy excuse offered:

“(Please Note- the appendices to this report are not currently included as we await permission from stakeholders to publish the notes of their meeting with the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators)”.

Was that permission ever sought I wonder? Not that I know of. Has anybody out there been approached for permission to publish? And despite EirGrid’s claim that SLR conducted “structured interviews with a wide range of individuals and groups who had experience of EirGrid’s consultation process”, I know for a fact that the three biggest community groups on the GridLink route were never even contacted by SLR, let alone ‘interviewed’ by them. Where are the SLR’s consultation notes I wonder?

I could go on but my head hurts after reading all this blarney. Read it for yourself. Get angry and/or have a giggle.

EirGrid must stop treating the citizens of Ireland like goggle-eyed children. They need to recognise that Grid25 is a folly, and that the NREAP is a decade out of date. Once they have done that, perhaps we can start again, with a clean slate, and with all options open.

About Neil van Dokkum

Neil van Dokkum (B. SocSc; LLB; LLM; PGC Con.Lit) Neil is a law lecturer and has been so since arriving in Ireland from South Africa in 2002. Prior to that Neil worked in a leading firm of solicitors from 1987-1992, before being admitted as an Advocate of the Supreme Court of South Africa (a barrister) in 1992. He published three books in South Africa on employment law and unfair dismissal, as well as being published in numerous national and international peer-reviewed journals. Neil currently specialises in employment law, medical negligence law, family law and child protection law. He dabbles in EU law (procurement and energy). Neil retired from practice in 2002 to take up a full-time lecturing post. He has published three books since then, “Nursing Law for Irish Students (2005); “Evidence” (2007); and “Nursing Law for Students in Ireland” (2011). He is an accredited and practising mediator and is busy writing a book, with Dr Sinead Conneely, on Mediation in Ireland. His current interest is Ireland’s energy policy and its impact on the people and the environment. He is also researching the area of disability as a politico-economic construct. Neil is very happily married to Fiona, and they have two sons, Rory and Ian.
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14 Responses to How many PR consultants does it take to change a light bulb?

  1. dave fingleton says:

    Excellent piece, Neil. I am trying to get some journalists to publish it to provide some balance to the story where they are giving a criticism free easy PR platform for Eirgrid to further window dress their toxic plans.

    Regards

    dave

    Date: Mon, 8 Dec 2014 10:36:17 +0000 To: davefingleton@hotmail.com

    • Thanks Dave. I wish you luck with the mainstream press – they seem to be dominated by a certain enormously wealthy individual who does not take kindly to criticism, despite the water dripping on his shoes at the moment.

  2. I have a particular problem with the NESC proposal in its Wind Energy report that “Renewable energy intermediary actors should be certified and resourced to enable and facilitate the energy transition at a local level”. This sounds rather like a government database of citizens’ positions on wind energy and pylons at a local level. This has already been mooted by Renewable Energy Magazine in Al Maiorino’s article of 04 April 2014. See http://www.renewableenergymagazine.com/article/public-opposition-stifles-eua-s-wind-energy-20140404
    In the article he recommends “Organize a database. With all the different individuals you will encounter throughout your project’s campaign, it’s crucial that supporters are organized in a detailed database that includes contact information, demographic data, and the various organizations your supporters may be involved in. The opposition will likely lack this level of organization, giving your advocacy campaign an edge over opponents’. Furthermore, this method will allow wind companies to target specific public officials by district once the database is coded to be able to strategically pool support for immediate mobilization. Tapping into this database for direct mail and telephone identification efforts will provide your project thousands of households in the community to code as supporters, opponents or undecideds”.
    If this is not trampling on the privacy and rights of individual citizens, I don’t know what is.

  3. Agreed. It is interesting to note that the latest PPN directory contains the contact details of the various officeholders. I wonder if prior consent was obtained?

  4. “Hamish Wilson has joined SLR Consulting as Technical Director and is tasked with developing the company’s oil and gas project portfolio worldwide.
    Over recent years the environmental firm has seen significant growth in the volume, value and range of projects it is involved with on behalf of international and national clients in the oil and gas sector. Hamish’s appointment will facilitate the further integration of SLR’s strong regional offering.
    One of his key areas of focus will be developing an integrated service enabling companies in the sector to obtain a ‘Social Licence to Operate’ (SLO) for their activities. This service combines SLR’s world-class environmental services with its excellent track record in winning social acceptance for controversial projects in infrastructure, mining and waste management.
    Prior to joining SLR Hamish was with RPS, who acquired his consulting company, Paras, in 2008. Paras was renowned for its expertise in upstream oil and gas and was a leader in exploration strategy and performance. SLR will reestablish these services as part of our integrated offering to the oil and gas sector.
    Hamish’s key specialism is in exploration strategy and programme management and he has previously helped companies develop and implement exploration led growth strategies as well as coached governments in attracting oil company investment.
    Hamish, who is based in SLR’s Bradford on Avon office, said: “Enhancing SLR’s offering in this way places us at the heart of oil company growth strategies, in which the search for new resources has to be combined with the management of social and environmental risks. SLR has a unique combination of skills that I’m excited at representing in the market place”
    SLR International Operations Director, Neil Penhall, said: “Hamish’s proven strategic expertise will help us to build on our success in the oil and gas sector as we target new clients operating in both conventional and unconventional resources as well as those in the rapidly emerging new exploration geographies.”
    SLR News” http://www.slrconsulting.com/technical-director-hamish-wilson-joins-slr-consulting
    You couldn’t make this stuff up!

  5. Ha, thanks very much. Are you telling me that EirGrid’s PR work is now being done by an oil exploration company?

  6. Pat Swords says:

    Neil

    Excellent article, hope it goes further, not just to the Media, but would work very well in a legal forum as well.

    They shut the door when the did the Grid25 SEA behind the nation’s back:

    http://www.eirgrid.com/media/Environmental%20Main%20Report.pdf

    You can see in the responses to the submissions, around page 175 (separate document at end) that only twenty two submissions came in, of which only three were related to the public. The manner in which they ‘responded’ to ‘yours truly’ was enough to invalidate the whole Grid25 programme, which fundamentally was based on implementing the NREAP, see also Section 2.5.6 of the SEA as regards the NREAP being the context for implementing Grid25. However, in the response to my submission and the legal breaches with the NREAP, there is a denial that the compliance of the NREAP has anything to do with the SEA and that they have no figures (zero environmental data) to actually justify why they are implementing Grid25 and the renewable programme.

    …and you think democratic standards in Kazakhstan and Belarus are bad???

  7. The Eirgrid report commits to three public consultation themes:
    1. Develop a participative approach
    2. Change our culture and processes
    3. Encourage leadership and advocacy
    This contrasts sharply with the DCENR, which is EirGrid’s parent government department. In conducting public consultation for the forthcoming national energy policy, the DCENR allocated just 90 minutes to Priority 3 on 21 October (total of 6 priorities in the Green Paper).
    This priority “Planning and Implementing Essential Energy Infrastructure” (i.e., the national electricity grid as well as other energy infrastructure) contained 7 of the 47 questions posed by the DCENR in the Green Paper.
    These included:
    17. “How could the permitting and licensing processes for major energy infrastructure projects provide for greater collaboration and engagement with community stakeholders?”
    18. “Following . . . , what additional improvements could be made to the permitting and licensing processes for energy infrastructure projects to make them clearer and more efficient for project developers, the public and other stakeholders?”
    It is difficult to see how a topic that attracted 38000 submissions to EirGrid can be adequately discharged in just 90 minutes by the DCENR.
    One wonders whether the DCENR intends to review its consultative processes, and engage with stakeholders as set out in its own questions, or whether the Priority 3 workshop was simply a “tick box” exercise.

  8. Pierre Greijmans says:

    Eirgrid and the public.
    It’s like a marriage where the wife bears an unplanned child and after that fact husband and wife discuss whether they should use contraception.
    Eirgrid takes it a step further: ‘now that you have the child….’

  9. STOP Pylons says:

    Neil,
    For a long time I and others like me have been trying to get up to speed with what is really going on in this country with our Energy Policy and the fire sale of our natural resources. For me, it has been an awakening. I will no longer accept with apathy that politicians can sit in the pockets on commercial interests while ignoring the people and civic responsibilities that should be their priority.
    Your blog has proved on countless occasions to be an invaluable resource.
    People like yourself, Dave Malone and Pat Swords (as far as I’m concerned we should be building statutes to this man) are quiet simply inspirational.
    Keep up the amazing work.

    Regards,
    Conor

  10. Neil,
    It has been over a year now since I first became aware of the implications of what was going on in this country; The so called “Energy Policy” along with the fire sale of our national resources. This has led me to an awakening of sorts. I am no longer prepared to accept with apathy whatever misdeeds the political elite think they can get away with in order to fatten the nests of their paymasters and political cronies.
    People like you, Dave Malone and Pat Swords (as far as I am concerned we should be putting up statues to that man) serve as both an inspiration and an invaluable resource on knowledge and information.
    Keep up the great work,

    Regards,
    Conor

  11. SAFE AMP says:

    Hi Neil – brilliant work on your part yet again. It’s all so true, there is no consultation; no abiding by Aarhus; no consideration of anyone who is involved as in being affected by the lines, rather a complete disregard of anyone or any thing in their(ESB) path…plough on regardless is the modus operandi. The Flagford to Srananagh line now built is testimony to this. How is it possible to get them to just listen and then engage in dialogue? If this type of corrupted behaviour was occurring in the third world we would be aghast…it’s happening under our noses, with the blessing and collusion of the politicians and we are also paying huge amounts of $$$ for the privilege of being so abused. Where to begin to get some transparency and accountability is the question…keep up the great work.

    Margaret

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