What a Seagull Taught Me About Stakeholder Engagement

A brief insight on engagement principles

Not long after I started my consultancy business I was invited by my local town council to attend a ‘community visioning’ workshop. It taught me a lot about engagement principles.

I was interested to see how it was run from a facilitation perspective, along with the results it produced.

It would turn out to be a great learning experience, particularly in being aware of the ‘seagull’ (not the elephant) in the room.

My wife, Georgie, and I both decide to go. We’re thrown in with a diverse range of people from across our community who had all devoted a Saturday to attend.

Our facilitator leads us through lots of engaging and participatory activities. We’re able to discuss, describe and even draw the elements of our vision for the future of our community.

The end of the day draws close. We’re all pretty well puffed, but still chuffed with all our creative, future-focused efforts and suggestions.

What’s that flapping sound?

And then it happens. The mayor arrives – yes at the end of the day. With one comment our work and goodwill is undone, “Thanks for your time today. Looking at your suggestions I’m not sure that many will be implemented, but we’ll go away and have a look at them anyway.”

Yep, the seagull had landed, if only briefly. The seagull is the person that flies in, squawks, seagull engagementcraps all over the place and then leaves again.

We all felt deflated as we trudged home. The upside was the valuable lessons that I’d just been taught about facilitating stakeholder engagement and participation.

 

Lesson 1 – Be clear on the benefits of engagement

The benefits of seeking involvement of people in decision-making include:

  • They understand what you’re trying to achieve and what part they can play in this
  • They’re clear on how they can have a say in the decision making process
  • They’ll have an increased willingness to go along with the decisions if they’ve been involved in the process

Lesson 2 – Be clear on the decisions that can be influenced

Whenever people are being asked to participate in decision making they need to know just how much they’ll be able to effect the final decision. Right from the start they’ll need to know:

  • How their input will be used
  • Who’s going to make the final ‘decisions’ regarding the issue
  • When this is going to happen
  • How they’ll be kept up to date on the result

In the seagull experience this wasn’t made clear from the start, leaving lots of people disenchanted with the process.

Lesson 3 – Utilise a simple to use engagement planning tool

Soon after, I was introduced to the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2). It provides valuable, simple to use tools and templates to use in stakeholder engagement design processes.

A really useful tool is the IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation. It’s a great tool to guide the design of engagement processes for the development of stakeholder engagement plans and processes. It shows the levels of stakeholder involvement in engagement processes.

Each stage of the spectrum is valid as long as the stakeholders you’re asking to participate understand their level of influence. Moving from the left to the right hand side of the table requires increasing levels of trust and willingness to work together.

 

Lesson 4 – Identify and articulate where your process sits on the IAP2 spectrum

Looking back at ‘Lesson 2’ – Mayor Seagull’s view of our role was in the ‘Consult’ stage. Whereas participants in the process were assuming we were closer to the ‘Collaborate’ stage. Realistically, we probably should’ve been within the ‘Involve’ stage.

In designing your own engagement processes, it’s vitally important that you have agreement with your client on which stage of the IAP2 spectrum that the process focuses on. The level also needs to be clearly communicated to anyone participating.

 

More information

Go to www.iap2.org.au

Thanks to Holger Link @photoholgic for the seagull image from www.unsplash.com

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Andrew Huffer

Andrew Huffer has over 25 years experience in working with organisations, businesses, managers and communities and at a state, national and international level. He designs and delivers specialist engagement processes, with a focus on facilitating open decision making processes and skill development of clients. He has delivered presentations and workshops at a number of state, national and international conferences.

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