Good stakeholder engagement should provide deeper levels of transparency and connection between the story being told and what is being assessed.
A core requirement of social value research is to engage stakeholders. This gives voice to people who have been affected by an organisation or project. It enables them to tell their story, and helps you identify the most important outcomes that have been experienced.
The Covid-19 lockdown has made these conversations and interactions difficult. Meeting stakeholders in person has become impossible. A wise mentor once told me “the only truth is the reality of human interaction”. The lockdown has put this into sharp focus. If you’re not in the same room you are less able to digest people’s body language. It is harder to catch a nervous vulnerability in someone’s voice and react accordingly. It is more difficult to show your sense of hospitality and appreciation to break the ice (‘let me get you a tea or coffee?’).
Moving to digital
I was therefore encouraged to learn that many people have pushed on and found alternative ways to engage communities during lockdown. Recent online conferences – such as those from UK Green Building Council and Future of London – have shown that local authorities, planners, and consultants are taking this seriously. Some of this will now continue after lockdown. “It’s about the conversations” said one director of a well-known national residential developer. “These are just as important as achieving the outcome”.
Digital chat apps and video call apps such as Zoom, Google Hangout, and WhatsApp, have emerged as popular tools. Many of these have functions for facilitating online focus groups and virtual face-to-face conversations. Other tools can also work offline and update the collected information when next online.
Success and challenges of digital stakeholder engagement
In our own work we have reached stakeholders using these tools, from pregnant mothers in West London to humanitarian volunteers in the Ukraine; and they have helped with harder-to-reach groups. Sometimes these have been backed up with telephone interviews and virtual or digital ‘drop-ins’.
Often the lockdown has increased the level of participation. Instead of fearing intimidation or judgment ‘in the room’, people are more comfortable opening up and voicing their views or concerns on a virtual, remote channel. And those who would have gone to a public consultation are just as motivated to ‘switch channel’ to a digital format if needed.
But there have been some big challenges. We hear of certain groups who have experienced bullying or negativity on other social media and have been reticent to engage in other platforms. Some authorities have been guilty of poor governance and online security, whilst others have been over-riding virtual meetings and removing speaking rights (according to an observation from a senior director at a countryside charity).
Safeguarding the public voice is of utmost importance if people are to continue trusting the fairness and transparency of decision-making. This is true for public services and many corporations, as much as for community services or regeneration projects. We can see it clearly in global events, from the Covid-19 lockdown to international protests against police brutality and racial inequality. At a time when we are distant and remote from each other, digital tools combined with human interaction provide a sense of agency and of feeling listened to.
Our recommendations for using digital tools to encourage stakeholder participation are:
- Provide processes for engaging over the long-term, enabling people to drop back into the feedback process at a later point.
- Focus on facilitating participation from harder-to-reach groups who often have barriers to participation – local partnership networks and collaborative cross-sector relationships can help.
- People come and go from online conversations. So we need to make sure that the questions we are asking are not lost amongst all the feedback. Stakeholder feedback needs to be logged, organised, and dated, so that the thread of which outcomes really matter and ‘consultation memory’ are not lost.
- Allow for the fact that mobile data allowance influences the likelihood of participation for those on lower incomes.
- Make sure that all channels are secure and safe for people, and that ground rules are shared and adhered to.
- Where possible, parts of the research process could be conducted by trained local charities or community members. This can also help build peer research skills and also local trust in the results.
If you’d like to hear more, contact Andy and the team at firstname.lastname@example.org