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Staying Community Conscious

Even the most basic project or development can become controversial in today’s polarized environment. In an age where an opinion (whether or not it’s based on facts) can influence thousands of others by a click on Facebook or Twitter, thinking ahead about everybody with an interest in a project is critical.

We know how difficult it can be to engage stakeholders and put an end to misinformation. When a project is up for vote, it’s imperative that community members have all the facts. Recognizing this, LaBella offers stakeholder engagement services to ensure your community is on the same page. Stakeholder engagement (or stakeholder management) is planning in advance for the involvement of stakeholders, especially for municipal leaders and those proposing projects before a municipality.

This article can serve as a field guide for managing all of the issues that can arise with stakeholders. There are four basic elements to stakeholder engagement:  Identification and Analysis, Communications Planning, Engagement Methods, and Crafting the Plan.

Stakeholder Identification and Analysis

Broadly defined as “any organization or individual that has a vested interest in a project,” stakeholders may be directly or indirectly impacted by a development. Stakeholders are usually diverse. For example, for a project which proposes to develop property that was formerly used as farmland, stakeholder groups could include the residents living adjacent to the property, members of a local environmental group, farmers in the community, and faculty from the local higher education institution.

In order to determine the complete set of stakeholders, it’s useful to review previous projects which are similar in nature to the current initiative. Other sources of data might include complaint logs, impact assessments, and a social media search. Once stakeholders are identified, they should be analyzed to determine their level of interest in the project and their level of influence. Stakeholders with high interest and high influence become your top priority.

Communications Planning

After identifying stakeholders, it is important to understand what key messages will lead to your project’s success. Stakeholders likely don’t have all of the facts and have heard various things from friends and neighbors. Now more than ever before, your constituents are getting their news from social networks such as Nextdoor and neighborhood groups on Facebook. Don’t worry about the misinformation being shared within these groups. Rather, make a plan to communicate directly with them.

Preparing a communications plan and weighing these considerations allows you to foresee all of the potential risks. Some form of additional education for stakeholders might be appropriate. For example, some stakeholders may not understand the authority of a municipal government to take a certain action or not. Additionally, having a communications plan for disclosing public information might be useful for complicated projects which have many documents associated with them.

Engagement Methods

Identifying how you’ll engage stakeholders throughout the project planning process, approval process, and even through construction ensures that stakeholders feel that their voices are heard. Almost all projects that could create some kind of nuisance –increased noise, odor, road closures – no matter how temporary, need a grievance management process. Basically, a way for stakeholders to lodge complaints or concerns.

A grievance management process is just one method of ensuring stakeholders are engaged in an organized way. Someone will eventually start collecting the concerns. As a municipal leader or member of their staff, it’s important to carefully consider whether your community is better off with you owning the grievance process rather than someone else.

You may want to consider involving stakeholders in monitoring the project. Most projects will involve public meetings, but some projects would benefit from an advisory committee made up of stakeholders that receive weekly updates from the project managers. With so many low-cost or free website platforms available today, you don’t have to be a web developer to create a simple website which serves as a tool to regularly engage and update stakeholders about the project.

Crafting the Plan

Finally, the Stakeholder Identification and Analysis, Communications Plan, and Engagement Methods should all be documents in a Stakeholder Engagement Plan. The individuals that are responsible for tasks associated with stakeholder engagement and the timeline are both clearly outlined in this document. At this point your plan becomes a vital tool for project success.

Stakeholder engagement ensures that you are prepared to listen to all sides, to understand the myriad of issues, and to respond. Whether stakeholders are in favor of the project or adversarial toward your goals, putting a Stakeholder Engagement Plan into action results in better informed and more effective policies and projects.