By Bryna Helfer and Roger Munter
It is becoming more and more of a truism – fortunately – that our public processes should naturally engage our stakeholders. However, while we hear this from public officials, senior administration leaders, and others – it’s still important to pause and ask ourselves: “Why is it important? Why do we want to engage our stakeholders? What are our engagement goals?”
Understanding what we are trying to accomplish through stakeholder engagement is crucial to creating successful processes. This is because successful processes so often hinge on community involvement – on stakeholders having the opportunity to be heard in a meaningful way. The more stakeholders feel heard and feel a sense of involvement, the more stake they have in seeing those projects, policies, programs and processes succeed.
Values of public engagement
The real question is this: how much do we value input and insights from members of our community? Do we believe that public input is important? Are we honest about our level of transparency and communication? Do we provide information in a format that is easy to access and understand? Do we take time to share how feedback may have informed policies, programs or projects? Do we make sure that community input doesn’t go into a “black box,” forever out of sight of the people who gave it?
It is the way we answer those questions – answers that we give through our actions, through our processes – that truly reveals how we feel about the importance of stakeholder engagement. Are we creating experiences that are rewarding to our stakeholders, that make them feel better about the project, the process, and better about our relationship with them? Are we creating engagement that increases our stakeholders’ trust in us? When they give us their voices and their thoughts, they are putting their trust in us that we will treat them with care and respect.
Gathering diverse perspectives and views
Care is really the key. What do we care about? It’s safe to say that all of our stakeholders – let’s call them—the residents, business owners, people who work in the community, and even visitors – care about the things happening around them and the projects that impact their daily lives. But what if they lack knowledge? What if they don’t know that a specific change is coming that will affect the things they care about?
As decisions are made about projects, programs, policies and budgets, public officials have an opportunity to gather feedback and insights from stakeholders and a chance to hear from those who may benefit from the action and/or be impacted in other ways. Yet, it is probably a good assumption that not all stakeholders have the same level of awareness about actions and decisions under consideration. How do we make sure that the people who are going to care about our projects are informed well enough and early enough to make their cares known to us?
If officials and staff depend only on those who are tracking and following the business of government, then we stand a good chance of missing a diverse set of views and perspectives. This will distort the outcomes of the most well-intentioned engagement processes.
The Benefits of Stakeholder Mapping
Getting to know your communities
It’s most likely that your community is a community of communities – circles of communities. So once you determine that stakeholder engagement is important, the next step is getting to know those communities. This step requires not just elected officials, but also staff, to get out, meet, and get to know people. It requires them to sit down and have coffee with people that not only hold leadership positions, but who are viewed as leaders, as influencers in and advocates for their own unique communities. It requires going to cultural events and activities to understand the nuances of those communities and what makes them tick – and mobilize. Understanding the norms in various neighborhoods or organizations will help all of us get to know each other a little better and help us overcome natural barriers to trust.
In one example, the Arlington County Manager and Director of the Arlington Civic Federation joined together to host a series of small roundtables with over 55 civic and condominium association leaders. In our actively engaged environment, direct conversations between community and government leaders outside of a specific project or policy concern had been missing. During the roundtables, community leaders identified key areas of interests as well as challenges that led to a series of workshops focused on building their membership bases, creating a pipeline for new leaders, and reaching neighbors in multi-family buildings.
Identifying unique areas of interest
Once you get to know your communities, then, it’s equally important to understand the policies, programs, and issues that they might care about. Sometimes, members of communities don’t even know they should care about something. Our processes can seem obscure and byzantine, our communications go unseen or misunderstood by important stakeholders who are, after all, living their own full and busy lives. Often, our stakeholders just don’t have enough information to understand that officials are thinking about creating a new program, changing a policy, or building a new facility that might help them (or one that might make their day-to-day routines more challenging).
Starting to “map” unique interests for different stakeholders in your community will facilitate a greater understanding of the issues that they might care about and help you re-assess where additional stakeholder engagement might be helpful in the future. It can also help to identify the networks of influence we might use to make sure that messages reach their intended target groups.
Creating Meaningful Communication, Outreach, and Engagement Strategies
Purposeful outreach strategies
When an opportunity surfaces to receive feedback from various stakeholders, staff is usually good about posting the information and opportunity on a public website, including it in a newsletter, and sending a press release. They then wait for the people to attend a meeting or respond to a request to provide feedback. Too often, the same stakeholders tend to come back again and again – limiting the chance to gather a broader range of views and perspectives from the wider community. Having a plan for purposeful outreach to those unique stakeholder communities that will benefit and/or be impacted in other ways strengthens the likelihood that they will participate and offer different thoughts and views about policies, programs, and project decisions coming before staff and senior-level officials.
Arlington County has recently been expanding communications and outreach strategies beyond the traditional focus on press releases and press coverage. This new approach includes outreach via online newsletters to over 140,000 residents; posting short social videos on twitter and Facebook, distributing information directly to local civic association and nonprofit leaders, hosting pop-up events at farmers markets, libraries, and community centers, and using local organizational newsletters and websites for distribution. High-touch personal outreach and relationship building with local community leaders, local faith-based organizations, and non-profits has been instrumental in helping expand engagement participation rates. Using social media tools such as nextdoor.com and govdelivery.com provides opportunities to offer important information to targeted geographic neighborhoods.
Identifying communication and partnership strategies
Many stakeholders are connected to their communities in some way – their neighborhood, their faith, their hobby, their schools, their music, their sports, their heritage, their clubs, and more. Many stakeholders get their information from these same sources – and trust the people they know through these connections.
These same partners may have their own newsletters, bulletin boards, websites and other mechanisms to post information. They may be willing to invite staff and officials to engage with their networks during regularly scheduled meetings or events, or alternatively partner with staff and officials to host unique sessions on specific projects, policies, or programs.
It is often difficult for some stakeholders to participate – especially families with children or residents who work two jobs. Further, people are busy just trying to keep their families healthy and manage their day-to-day lives. So, considerations for the time of day and location for in-person sessions are also important factors. Offering parallel child care, meals, and transportation may also help increase the level of participation on specific topics. It is also valuable to offer online and other virtual options for providing feedback on important items.
Working with leaders of these formal and informal networks offers a significant opportunity to provide information and gather feedback from those with different experiences, perspectives, and views.
Engaging with people where they are is key to good engagement strategies. Whether through pop ups, connections through trusted partners, or good old-fashioned physical signage, taking the message to the stakeholders, rather than expecting the stakeholders to come to the message, is an impactful approach to gathering diverse and representative viewpoints.
Making Engagement Meaningful
At the end of the day, participation in public engagement processes is a value exchange. It’s important that public officials and staff demonstrate that community input and feedback are valued by identifying interested stakeholders, providing easy opportunities to participate, and highlighting areas where feedback has been integrated. Likewise, it is important that stakeholders who participate feel like their input was valued and receive ongoing feedback about the important voice they bring to the table.
If we are serious about stakeholder engagement, then it is equally important to ensure that public officials and staff across government understand why stakeholder engagement is important and establish a process for ensuring a consistent approach moving forward.
Bryna Helfer is the Assistant County Manager for Public Engagement and Roger Munter is the Director of Public Engagement in Arlington County, VA where they are constantly working to enhance consistent public engagement processes, community partnerships, and meaningful engagement practice.