partnership

Peace, justice, partnerships and a strategic approach - 7/7 on business and the Sustainable Development Goals

Photo: Flags and goals, Liu Bolin. For more SDG images see the  UN's media centre .

Photo: Flags and goals, Liu Bolin. For more SDG images see the UN's media centre.

Now that the Sustainable Development Goals (Global Goals) have had a chance to bed down, how are companies responding to them?  And what about the rather nebulous enabling goals 16 and 17 on peace, justice, strong institutions and partnership: how can businesses translate these into action? 

The seventh and final piece in my series on the SDGs, written for The Environmentalist magazine, is out now.  See it on their website here, or read the pdf version.

What makes a great partnership?

This series has featured many collaborations and partnerships.  Some, like the UN Global Compact, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development or the UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development network, are for business and other players across the sustainability spectrum.  Others focus on specific issues or sectors, like the Sustainable Shipping Initiative, the Corporate Leaders Group (which is about climate change) and the C40 network of cities.

This kind of joint working can be disappointing, if clear shared goals and skilful convening are lacking. 

It’s also important to understand that there is a spectrum of collaborative working, from sharing information, coordination and cooperation through one-off collaborative projects and mainstream work delivered jointly right up to collaboration being the new business-as-usual.  Potential collaborators need to listen to each other’s assumptions about how they expect to work together, as well as what they want to achieve.

This spectrum, and other useful frameworks and tips, are explored in my book “Working Collaboratively: a practical guide to achieving more”. 

Strategic responses to the goals as a whole

In exploring what businesses are doing to respond the Sustainable Development Goals as a whole, I have found different approaches being used.

Some, like Acciona the Spanish renewables and infrastructure company, are using them to focus their corporate volunteering.

Cemex, BT and Samsung are among companies which are highlighting links to specific goals in their sustainability reporting.  GRI has mapped the SDGs against its reporting frameworks.

Many are using the SDGs to augment their materiality analysis.  Global consultancy firm PwC has developed a sophisticated and detailed tool which helps clients take their first steps in engaging with the goals.  Louise Scott who helped develop the Navigator tool, said

“Our detailed country-by-country research has helped companies spot things they didn’t realise were important, and catalysed conversations, grounded in geography, about where they can have the most impact.”

Novozymes is using the SDGs as part of filtering and prioritising in its innovation pipeline.  The company has gone further, linking its Executive Leadership Team’s bonus scheme to annual operational targets, derived in part from the SDGs.

Make some noise

DNV GL, the Norwegian-based multi-service assurance, standards and advisory business, is among those business services suppliers who are making some noise about the SDGs.  Bjørn Haugland is their Chief Sustainability Officer, and through his substantial twitter following and DNV’s publications he is spreading the word to businesses and helping shape the business response.

Influencing government action

Business has a powerful voice and can choose to use it to support, or undermine, robust government action in favour of sustainable development.  This is particularly important when it comes to policy coherence, which is targeted in Goal 17.

BT is part of the We Mean Business coalition – thousands of influential businesses and business groups working to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy.  Over 120 coalition member companies have signed up to a commitment to responsible corporate engagement on climate change, promising to audit their activity, ensuring consistency and disclosing positions, actions and outcomes.

Across the suite of SDGs, Steve Kenzie Executive Director of the UN Global Compact in the UK, thinks companies should be “holding the Government’s feet to the fire”.

First, do no harm

Expert after expert told me that companies need to look hardest at where they may be – albeit inadvertently – undermining the SDGs.  Ruth Mhlanga, Oxfam’s Private Sector Policy Advisor, stressed

“It’s not just about opportunities, it’s also about responsible conduct and impact.  Don’t undermine one goal while tackling another.  Sustainability leaders will include those who support government efforts to govern for the common good and are willing to stand up to peers who undermine those collective efforts.” 

Collaborate to shift the system

Picking off the goals and targets which seem easiest could be a mistaken strategy, if the actions you take involve trading off progress on one front with undermining it on another.  In its research into the interconnections between the SDGs, The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) highlights an area ripe with what it calls ‘wicked trade-offs’: environmental protection versus reducing food prices.  IIASA found that the most effective win-win would be to reduce the proportion of meat in Western diets.

Oxfam’s Mhlanga also advocates collaborative, system-level action. 

“On issues like freedom of association, single companies can’t fix the problem alone.  Oxfam’s work on labour rights in Vietnam, for example, illustrated that unilateral action is insufficient because the issues are systemic across an industry.  But where companies, governments and civil society work together, making issues like suppliers paying a living wage precompetitive, then no one company is disadvantaged by competitors undercutting.”  

The Business and Sustainable Development Commission’s report "Better Business, Better World" was clear on the need for system-level change:

“ ‘Business as usual’ will not achieve this market transformation. Nor will disruptive innovation by a few sustainable pioneers be enough to drive the shift: the whole sector has to move. Forward-looking business leaders are working with sector peers and stakeholders to map their collective route to a sustainable competitive playing field.”

Stephanie Draper is Forum for the Future’s Deputy Chief Executive.  Looking at progress since the SDGs were announced, Draper said

“Successfully delivering the SDGs requires a really strong systems approach.  That means operating on three levels – joining up with others’ efforts to achieve individual goals; looking at the inter-relationships between all the goals, and delivering the goals in a way that models the characteristics we need for a sustainable society.”

Which brings us back to Goals 16 and 17, with their call for inclusion, participation and collaboration.

‘If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’

We need to go far. And we need to go quickly. So we’d better figure out how we’re going to do both.

Seven and out

You can read the series on The Environmentalist's website (IEMA login, subscription or free trial) or on my blog.

InterAct Networks - thank you for a wonderful ride

For over fifteen years, InterAct Networks worked to put stakeholder and public engagement at the heart of public sector decision-making, especially through focusing on capacity-building in the UK public sector.  This work - through training and other ways of helping people learn, and through helping clients thinks about structures, policies and organisational change - helped organisations get better at strategically engaging with their stakeholders to understand their needs and preferences, get better informed, collaboratively design solutions and put them into practice.  Much of that work has been with the Environment Agency, running the largest capacity-building programme of its kind.

History

InterAct Networks was registered as a Limited Liability Partnership in February 2002.

Founding partners Jeff Bishop, Lindsey Colbourne, Richard Harris and Lynn Wetenhall established InterAct Networks to support the development of 'local facilitator networks' of people wanting to develop facilitation skills from a range of organisations in a locality.

These geographically based networks enabled cross organisational learning and support.  Networks were established across the UK, ranging from the Highlands and Islands to Surrey, Gwynedd to Gloucestershire. InterAct Networks provided the initial facilitation training to the networks, and supported them in establishing ongoing learning platforms. We also helped to network the networks, sharing resources and insights across the UK. Although some networks (e.g. Gwynedd) continue today, others found the lack of a 'lead' organisation meant that the network eventually lost direction.

In 2006, following a review of the effectiveness of the geographical networks, InterAct Networks began working with clients to build their organisational capacity to engage with stakeholders (including communities and the public) in decision making.  This work included designing and delivering training (and other learning interventions), as well as setting up and supporting internal networks of engagement mentors and facilitators.  We have since worked with the Countryside Council for Wales, the UK Sustainable Development Commission, Defra, DECC (via Sciencewise-ERC see p10), Natural England and primarily the Environment Agency in England and Wales.

Through our work with these organisations InterAct Networks led the field in:

  • diagnostics

  • guidance

  • tools and materials

  • new forms of organisational learning.

After Richard and Jeff left, Penny Walker joined Lindsey and Lynn as a partner in 2011, and InterAct Networks became limited company in 2012.  In 2014, Lynn Wetenhall retired as a Director.  

Some insights into building organisational capacity

Through our work with clients, especially the Environment Agency, we have learnt a lot about what works if you want to build an organisation's capacity to engage stakeholders and to collaborate.  There is, of course, much more than can be summarised here.  Here are just five key insights:

  • Tailor the intervention to the part of the organisation you are working with.
  • For strategic, conceptual 'content', classroom training can rarely do more than raise awareness.
  • Use trainers who are practitioners.
  • Begin with the change you want to see.
  • Learning interventions are only a small part of building capacity.

Tailor the intervention

An organisation which wants to improve its engagement with stakeholders and the public in the development and delivery of public policy needs capacity at organisational, team and individual levels.

This diagram, originated by Jeff Bishop, shows a cross-organisational framework, helping you to understand the levels and their roles (vision and direction; process management; delivery).  If capacity building remains in the process management and delivery zones, stakeholder and public engagement will be limited to pockets of good practice. 

Classroom training will raise awareness of tools

There are half a dozen brilliant tools, frameworks and concepts which are enormously helpful in planning and delivering stakeholder and public engagement.  Classroom training (and online self-guided learning) can do the job of raising awareness of these.  But translating knowledge into lived practice - which is the goal - needs ongoing on-the-job interventions like mentoring, team learning or action learning sets.  Modelling by someone who knows how to use the tools, support in using them - however inexpertly at first - and reinforcement of their usefulness.  Reflection on how they were used and the impact they had. 

Use trainers who are practitioners

People who are experienced and skillful in planning and delivering stakeholder and public engagement, and who are also experienced and skillful in designing and delivering learning interventions, make absolutely the best capacity-builders. They have credibility and a wealth of examples, they understand why the frameworks or skills which are being taught are so powerful. They understand from practice how they can be flexed and when it's a bad idea to move away from the ideal. We were enormously privileged to have a great team of practitioner-trainers to work with as part of the wider InterAct Networks family.

Begin with the change you want to see

The way to identify the "learning intervention" needed, is to begin by asking "what does the organisation need to do differently, or more of, to achieve its goals?", focusing on whatever the key challenge is that the capacity building needs to address.  Once that is clear (and it may take a 'commissioning group' or quite a lot of participative research to answer that question), ask "what do (which) people need to do differently, or more of?".  Having identified a target group of people, and the improvements they need to make, ask "what do these people need to learn (knowledge, skills) in order to make those improvements?".  At this stage, it's also useful to ask what else they need to help them make the improvements (permission, budget, resources, changes to policies etc). Finally, ask "what are the most effective learning interventions to build that knowledge and those skills for these people?".  Classroom training is only one solution, and often not the best one. 

Learning interventions are (only) part of the story

Sometimes the capacity that needs building is skills and knowledge - things you can learn. So learning interventions (training, coaching, mentoring etc) are appropriate responses. Sometimes the capacity "gap" is about incentives, policies, processes or less tangible cultural things.  In which case other interventions will be needed.  The change journey needs exquisite awareness of what 'good' looks like, what people are doing and the impact it's having, what the progress and stuckness is.  Being able to share observations and insights as a team (made up of both clients and consultants) is invaluable.

The most useful concepts and frameworks

Over the years, some concepts and frameworks emerged as the most useful in helping people to see stakeholder engagement, collaboration and participation in a new light and turn that enlightenment into a practical approach.

I've blogged about some of these elsewhere on this site: follow the links.

  • What's up for grabs?  What's fixed, open or negotiable.
  • Asking questions in order to uncover latent consensus - the PIN concept.
  • How much engagement? Depending on the context for your decision, project or programme, different intensities of engagement are appropriate.  This tool helps you decide.
  • Is collaboration appropriate for this desired outcome? This matrix takes the 'outcome' that you want to achieve as a starting point, and helps you see whether collaborating with others will help you achieve it.
  • Engagement aims: transmit, receive and collaborate.  Sometimes known as the Public Engagement Triangle, this way of understanding "engagement aims" was developed originally by Lindsey Colbourne as part of her work with the Sciencewise-ERC, for the Science for All Follow Up Group.
  • Who shall we engage and how intensely? (stakeholder identification and mapping)

Three-day facilitation training

As part of this wider suite of strategic and skills-based capacity building, InterAct Networks ran dozens of three-day facilitation skills training courses and helped the Environment Agency to set up an internal facilitator network so that quasi-third parties can facilitate meetings as part of public and stakeholder engagement.  The facilitator network often works with external independent facilitators, contracted by the Environment Agency for bigger, more complex or higher-conflict work. This facilitation course is now under the stewardship of 3KQ.

More reports and resources

Here are some other reports and resources developed by the InterAct Networks team, sometimes while wearing other hats.

Evaluation of the use of Working with Others - Building Trust for the Shaldon Flood Risk Project, Straw E. and Colbourne, L., March 2009.

Departmental Dialogue Index - developed by Lindsey Colbourne for Sciencewise.

Doing an organisational stocktake.

Organisational Learning and Change for Public Engagement, Colbourne, L., 2010, for NCCPE and The Science for All group, as part of The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)’ Science and Society programme.

Mainstreaming collaboration with communities and stakeholders for FCERM, Colbourne, L., 2009 for Defra and the Environment Agency.

Thank you for a wonderful ride

In 2015, Lindsey and Penny decided to close the company, in order to pursue other interests.  Lindsey's amazing art work can be seen here.  Penny continues to help clients get better at stakeholder engagement, including through being an Associate of 3KQ, which has taken ownership of the core facilitation training course that InterAct Networks developed and has honed over the years. The Environment Agency continues to espouse its "Working with Others" approach, with great guidance and passion from Dr. Cath Brooks and others. Colleagues and collaborators in the work with the Environment Agency included Involve and Collingwood Environmental Planning, as well as Helena Poldervaart who led on a range of Effective Conversations courses. We hope that we have left a legacy of hundreds of people who understand and are committed to asking great questions and listening really well to the communities and interests they serve, for the good of us all.