For years, my practice has been and continues to be focused on helping people have meaningful conversations about things that matter so they can do good things for the world, together. This intention inspires me every day in my work with organizations and communities. Underneath this focus is one core value and one belief.
The core value is that those who will be affected by decisions have the right to be involved in influencing those decisions if not actually making them. The belief is that we make better decisions when the decision-making process includes, genuinely considers, and integrates the interests and concerns of those who are likely to be affected by a decision.* These are called “stakeholders.” This means people who
- have decision-making authority over how the problem is defined and what solutions to pursue;
- care about or are being affected by the issue;
- have information, experience and expertise;
- will likely be affected by solutions;
- will have the responsibility to implement solutions; and
- could block implementation of solutions.
You can involve stakeholders through meetings in which people work together to define the issue, analyze the causes, and develop solutions. If the number of stakeholders makes it challenging to involve them through meetings, you can involve them through surveys, online platforms, and advisory groups.
There are four keys to engaging stakeholders effectively. First, people need to understand enough about the situation so they can contribute in meaningful ways. Decision makers and content experts frequently assume that an issue is so complex or technical that members of the public or employees lower in an organization won’t understand it enough for their input to be useful or credible. It can take extra effort to get people up to speed so they can engage in knowledgeable ways. However, even if they don’t understand all the technical aspects of a situation, they can readily provide information about their experience, what they value, and what criteria they want decision makers to use in making decisions.
For example, in a public process regarding water rights and uses, a water district provided multiple educational briefings for stakeholder groups. They also hosted a daylong water workshop that covered everything from water law to the watershed that is key to the source of the community’s water. And, a pharmaceutical company engaged thousands of employees in thinking through the potential implications of a proposed change in their IT platform.
Second, people need to know how their input will be used and by whom. For example, a stakeholder advisory group in a community or an organization might gather input from multiple stakeholders, synthesize their input, and draft recommendations for decision makers based on the input from the stakeholders.
Third, those who do provide input need to have a clear line of sight from the input they provided to the decisions that are made. This means summarizing people’s input, sharing this summary with everyone who provided it, and communicating what decisions were made and why. This might sound something like, “Here are the range of perspectives we heard from you…We (or I) decided to do “X” for the following reasons…Your input influenced our thinking in the following ways…Although some of you wanted to do “Y,” we decided not to do that because…”
When people understand how a decision will be or was made, how their input was considered, and the rationale underlying a decision, they are more likely to see the process as fair and support implementation of the decisions.
*Wording is adapted from the Core Values and Code of Ethics of the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2).