Could your stakeholder engagement be destroying your social license?
We all know that stakeholder engagement is a critical part of building and maintaining a social license to operate. But could your stakeholder engagement actually be harming or undermining your social license?
Here are some signs to look out for.
1. Wrong Questions
There’s nothing quite like the frustration of being asked the wrong question, especially when you genuinely want to engage and provide useful feedback or information. It reminds me of the bad old days of going to buy a car and being asked what colour car I wanted. I didn’t have to add “as a woman” to that statement, did I?
If you’re not asking the right questions or giving people the opportunity to participate meaningfully, your efforts will engender distrust, anger and ultimately be quite unproductive. You might feel like you’re ticking the box by having a feedback form in place, but in fact, your efforts are destroying what social capital you do already have.
2. Goldfish Syndrome
You keep asking the same questions, over, and over again…and you don’t seem to have heard the answers previously given. Local Councils are notorious for doing this (sorry guys!). If it’s not another section of Council asking the same question (unaware that a different team has already asked a similar question); it’s a project that keeps getting restarted, sometimes with a new consultant team in place. Planning processes, housing strategies, and many of the topics Councils deal with are tricky and complex, and it often takes multiple attempts to get it right. As a community member, I have felt the frustration of my local Council asking for my input in a process that has been ongoing for years, with very active engagement and detailed feedback provided in earlier stages. They get a shiny new online forum and invite me to participate, or a new consultant team want me to come to a workshop…and I sigh internally and wonder if I have the energy to provide that feedback all over again.
Asking for the same information multiple times is not only an incredibly inefficient use of your limited time and resources, but it’s also disrespectful of the community’s time and input.
One of the most powerful things you can do in an engagement process is to demonstrate that you have listened and heard the feedback. Demonstrate how you have used the feedback and data, what it has influenced, or why it wasn’t adopted. Demonstrating a fair and accountable engagement process (even if it doesn’t deliver the outcome people want), goes a very long way towards building social capital and social license.
3. Missing Voices
Ever been at a planning session for facilities or services for young people, and everyone in the room is over 50? Of course, this can happen despite the best intentions and efforts of the engagement practitioners who have organised the session. There aren’t many kids who are interested enough in the workings of their local Council after all! But if you find your engagement program in this situation, with critical voices missing, then you need to find ways to address it or it will undermine the integrity of the entire engagement effort.
Very early in my career as a community engagement practitioner, I ran a process for a very controversial project in a very diverse community. I set up a Neighbourhood Forum and held monthly meetings with the fairly fluid group that varied from 20 to over 100 people at times. In contrast to the Community Representative Forum which was very formal and exclusive, anyone could be part of my Neighbourhood Forum. The only thing they had to do was to agree to represent someone else (as well as themselves) – a group of neighbours, their primary school kids, church group, anyone. They had to commit to sharing the information we provided, discussing the topics with the group they represented and bring to each meeting feedback from their group in their own words to share with the rest of us. It was simple, had a tiny impact on our budget, and it worked brilliantly. Participants took on the responsibility and demonstrated pride in representing their little groups, as well as generously helping our project team reach those missing voices. I loved running that group and was secretly thrilled when an innocent question from that group ended up changing the entire course of that megaproject. Good questions come in all shapes and sizes and from all sorts of places!
As well as finding ways to reach those missing voices in your engagement program, look at the methods of engagement you are using. Are they accessible to all sectors of the community? If the entire engagement program is being run online are you excluding people who don’t have access to computers/the internet or without the required literacy skills? (This is a particular challenge right now when face-to-face events are restricted while we deal with this raging pandemic.) Are the timing of your events excluding people who work standard business hours? Consider how your engagement methods and messages might be used to ensure that you are providing all stakeholders with an equitable opportunity to participate.
So as you can see, ‘more’ is not necessarily ‘more’ when it comes to stakeholder engagement or building social license. It all starts with asking the right questions, for your stakeholders, and for yourself – are your engagement efforts adding value or detracting from your objectives and social license? Here’s a great Ted talk on the art of asking a good question by Max Hardy that is worth watching if you haven’t already seen it.
If you’d like to explore these and other topics related to stakeholder engagement and social license, keep an eye out for the regular webinars we run or get in touch and we’ll put you on the notification list.