By Doug Downs, managing partner
Public and stakeholder engagement is definitely overrated these days. We live in an age in which subject matter experts, like engineers and lawyers and doctors – even politicians – have to constantly stage faux engagement events to convince regulators and the public as a whole that they are “listening” and gathering input into plans. Even modifying those plans or, horrors, making major planning decisions based on the layperson’s input.
Projects would move more smoothly and society would advance faster if people just let the experts do their work.
Sadly, in many cases, there is simply no choice – projects need regulatory approval, are subject to appeals and scrutiny by special Boards and politicians need more votes than their rivals. We live in a day in which the uninformed masses have the right to tell the informed few (the smarter people) what to do – where and how.
So here are my suggestions to modern stakeholder engagement approaches:
1. Think everything through first before you go to the community
It’s important you spend months in advance doing work on your project so you can produce the best fact sheets and Gantt charts at your community engagement events. Once everyone sees how much work you’ve done they’ll realize it’s a waste of time to oppose it or learn anything about it. You’re clearly an expert in everything here and they’ll trust you.
2. Specifically ask questions that invite reaction and polarize neighbours. They won’t fight you if they’re fighting one another.
When you’ve put all your energy into your solutions there will only be two types of people who get engaged – those strongly in favour (we like them) and those strongly against (boo). There’s an art to asking questions at public engagement events – keep a sensitive face and carefully point out those wanting option red are hurting those wanting option blue and vice versa. The public will then see that you’re simply caught in the middle trying to please everyone or at least the most people – any inconveniences to one or the other are not your fault.
3. Focus all your energy on those most hyper-engaged
Some people get very passionate and care deeply about your project or their own project which yours will impact. They want to make sure they’re heard. They have a lot to say and will say it to a lot of people. Generally, people greatly respect those most opinionated so be sure to focus all or most of your energy on these “squeaky wheels.” Breakthroughs in consultation never come from the less obvious or less involved people (such as children or young people). Narrow your stakeholder base and highlight in your consultation report that you have carefully engaged with those most interested.
4. Launch an Education Campaign
Honestly, an appreciative inquiry is a charade. The community you are engaging with doesn’t have your level of knowledge and sophistication. Think of it as an empty vessel that needs to be educated. People love to be educated and thirst to learn from your expertise. Spend a lot of money on advertising and publications because people will hungrily soak the information in.
5. Label anyone opposed to your project as “Nimby” or the “vocal minority.”
When you’ve put this much thought into your project – and you have the credentials to back up your plans – it’s downright disrespectful and ignorant for common people to oppose those plans. Most people understand this so be sure to clearly demonstrate to the silent majority that the vocal minority is opposed to everything and self-absorbed.
6. Stick to the Plan – explain your Gantt chart thoroughly and once they get it they’ll appreciate all your hard work
The reality is your organization needs to prove a business case before it can develop plans that have ultimately brought you to this community engagement stage. That business case includes project plans and timings – a Gantt chart. Unfortunately, there are some people who attend these events that don’t understand this – they are not wise and think plans can be changed to suit their whim. You need to outline very carefully why the Gantt chart is perfect and cannot be changed. If these people are still opposed – label them appropriately (see item 5 in this list).
7. Don’t let anyone else feel like they have meaningful input
Remind people who the decision-makers are here. Remind them that if they want to fight you on this, how time consuming and costly it is to attend regulatory or board hearings to present their case and remind them you have an army of lawyers and PR people who can tell the story straight.
If someone objects to the feeling that the whole project is a done deal and that input isn’t being considered, just shrug and tell them a lot of experts have put a lot of work into this.
And if it’s about land rights that you need access to – wait to hear them out then put on your best sensitive face and tell them (almost as if it pains you to do so) that the very last thing you want to do is go to the Surface Rights Board to expropriate land rights … but you will if you have to.
Doug Downs is a Board Member of IAP2 Wild Rose so he’s an “expert” in all of the above and not to be disagreed with. He is also seeking counselling for his addictions to SARCASM and TONGUE IN CHEEK disease.