How do you decide on the right stakeholder engagement strategy? Recently I have sat in on a number of meetings where a combination of commitment and confusion led to a lack of clarity about how to best engage with stakeholders. It is great that groups involved in local regeneration -whether council committees, Business Improvement Districts, development trusts or special interest groups – are so often asking the right questions. Less encouraging is how a lack of focus can lead to the wrong answers, inactivity or wasteful engagement.
All of which has got me thinking about whether there is a similar, simple thought process that might help all these disparate groups determine a suitable stakeholder engagement and communication strategy.
To my mind, ‘why’ is always a good question to start with. For stakeholder engagement it might be that a group is seeking to inform, investigate, influence, involve or empower. Such purposes will in part be determined by the role and resources of the group in question.
Specialist guidance, such as the Local Governments Association’s recently published Councillor’s Workbook on Neighbourhood and Community Engagement; provide clear justifications for engagement by particular sectors.
The Scottish Community Development Centre’s 2014 report on Achieving Community Empowerment focuses on the capacity and resources that community-based groups need to achieve to be fully effective locally in enabling a transfer of power. This approach adopts the deep-rooted Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) approach to mobilising community ‘assets’, rather than focusing on problems and needs.
This of course leads on to the second question: Who are the stakeholders that a group needs to engage with? The ‘why’ and the ‘who’ will combine in different ways such that, for example, a special interest group may need to investigate local resident’s opinions; involve other groups in a shared agenda and influence decision-makers. ‘Who’ should also include maintaining ‘internal’ communications with the Board, staff, working groups, volunteers and members to maintain involvement.
Within this thought process there should instinctively begin to be a process of prioritisation. This should in part reflect capacity.
In determining ‘how’ to engage and communicate with stakeholders, it is important to be aware of the range of techniques available and their merits for engaging for different outcomes sought and with different groups. The potential techniques are numerous. The Scottish Government’s online ‘How to’ guide on community engagement, for example, lists the following broad categories which are further sub-divided in to 29 separate techniques:
- Discussion group techniques
- Public event techniques
- Survey techniques
- Regular involvement techniques
- Capacity building and support
- Using arts and innovation
Increasingly, digital engagement techniques provide new opportunities for reaching different stakeholders including ‘hard-to-reach’ groups. For example, a BID may find it invaluable to use social media to reach potential customers who do not currently use the town centre in question. Nesta’s recently published research paper Digital Democracy: The Tools for Transforming Political Engagement includes details of good practice in using digital techniques.
To pull all this together and curtail endless roundtable discussions, my conclusion is that groups could combine this thinking into a straightforward matrix. Such a matrix with axes for ‘why’ and ‘who’ could be populated with suitable techniques to create a clear strategy for targeted stakeholder engagement and communication. Such a simple thought process could apply similarly to different types of organisations from council committees to special interest groups.
Help and information
The People & Places Partnership has long included community engagement as an intrinsic part of its work to understand town centres trends and create talented regeneration teams. Stakeholder engagement is even central to our new People, Places & Parking Process that aims to get between the parking battle lines. Community engagement is integral to the handbook on Revitalising Town Centres written by the People & Places Partnership for the Local Government Association. It’s part of our DNA! In future, we’ll be reviewing the ‘why’, ‘who’ and ‘how’ we do it with a little added clarity!
If you need specialist input from people committed to community engagement and who understand town centres, get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org. A day spent reviewing your approach to stakeholder engagement may prove a good investment before launching in to time-consuming but potentially, unfocused activity.