Here are some powerful tools to help clients plan their stakeholder engagement more strategically.
First, an apology. I am going to try to make some serious points here and it may make you groan. Taking all the fun away. Sorry about that.
Second, a confession. I LOVE Boaty McBoatface.
Let's take this from the top. What were NERC's engagement aims? My guess is that the main aim was to 'transmit' the message that NERC does amazing research in the polar regions and that they are getting a new boat. The #NameOurShip campaign has certainly done that. Perhaps they had a secondary 'receive' aim - gathering contact details for people who are interested, or gathering a long-list of names. Since the decision-making power for the actual name does not rest with the public (NERC's press release today says: "NERC will now review all of the suggested names and the final decision for the name will be announced in due course"), the 'collaborate' aim is confined to expressing a preference about the names.
And what's up for grabs? Their rather lovely public website doesn't seem to have a page about the 'rules', so I'm guessing here. Fixed: there will be a boat, it will have a name, NERC will decide the name. Presumably there are some criteria, explicit or implicit. I couldn't find these. I'm guessing there will be some kind of criterion to do with appropriateness, relevance or gravitas which will mean that sadly, RSS Boaty McBoatface will not be painted on the side of this noble vessel. Open: the public can suggest names and express preferences about the names suggested by others. Negotiable: Hmm, nothing really.
So, what went wrong? You might argue, nothing at all - thousands of names were submitted and many more preferences expressed. NERC now has a global audience of people keen to hear the announcement and with some interest in the ship and its work.
This is an engagement process leading to a decision with very low jeopardy. Very few people will be impacted 'highly' by the decision. If the decision were of a different kind - whether or not to change the flood defences in a particular area, for example, or site a geological disposal facility for radioactive waste - then being confused about who is taking which decisions and what their criteria are could lead to anger and conflict.
In my experience, people haven't often reflected on the subtleties of the difference between consultation and shared decision-making, and can assume that a 'voting' mechanism is always a decision-making mechanism. Thinking you are deciding, and then realising you're just being canvassed, can lead to grumpiness. Client teams also sometimes need help coming to a shared view about what the decision-making points are, and who decides, when they put together their engagement plan.
Which is why it's a good idea to be very clear about the process aspects of your engagement:
- What are your engagement aims?
- What's up for grabs?
- Who the stakeholders are, their level of influence and the level of impact the decision will have on them.
- Who is taking which decisions, and on the basis of what criteria?
It's a shame that NERC's process isn't really devolved decision-making. I'd love to see cutting edge science done from the deck of RSS Boaty McBoatface. Perhaps the ship's cat can blog with the pen name Boaty McBoatface. I'd read that.
[6th May 2016]
NERC has announced that it will call the ship the RSS Sir David Attenborough. A great name: Sir David is a bona fide national treasure, and has taught successive generations about the wonder, diversity and jaw-dropping bonkersness of life of this astonishing planet of ours. But still people, including the BBC, are describing the public engagement as a 'vote' (implying decision-making has been devolved) rather than a long-listing or a canvassing of support. And the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, which is looking into science communication, are likely to question Professor Duncan Wingham about the initiative.
They didn't take up my suggestion of the ship's cat: they've gone for the even better choice of naming an undersea remote yellow submarine Boaty McBoatface . Which I think is a great way to acknowledge the public's input and maintain the interest.
So you've brainstormed a long (long!) list of all the kinds of people and organisations who have a stake in the policy, project, organisation or issue that you are focusing on. This is what we call stakeholder identification.
What do you do next?
Now there are lots of ways you can analyse your universe of stakeholders, but my absolute favourite, for its conceptual neatness and the way it lends itself to being done by a group, is the impact / influence matrix.
Notice the subtle but important difference between this matrix, and the one most commonly used by PR and communications specialists, which focuses on whether stakeholders are in favour of - or opposed to - your plans. It would be inappropriate to use this for stakeholder engagement which engages in order to inform decisions, because you will be engaging before you have made up your mind. And if you haven't decided yet, how can stakeholders have decided whether they agree with you?!
Instead, the matrix helps you to see who needs to be engaged most intensely because they can have a big impact on the success or otherwise of the work, or because the work will have a big impact on them. It is 'blind' to whether you think the stakeholders are broadly your mates or the forces of darkness.
Map as a team
Your list is written out on sticky notes - one per note - and the stakeholders have been made as specific as possible: Which team at the local authority? Which residents? Which NGO? Which suppliers in the supply chain?
You have posted up some flip chart paper with the matrix drawn on.
The mapping is ideally done as a team - and that team might even include some stakeholders! During the mapping, everyone needs to be alert to the risk of placing a particular stakeholder in the 'wrong' place, because you don't want to engage with them. It's self-defeating, because sooner or later you will need to engage with the most influential stakeholders whether you want to or not. And sooner is definitely better than later.
You move the notes around until you're all satisfied that you have a good enough map.
Intensity? Transmit, receive, collaborate
When the mapping is complete, then you can discuss the implications: those in the low/low quadrant probably just need to be informed about what's happening (transmit). Those in the diagonal band encompassing both the high / low quadrants need to be asked what they know, what they think and what they feel about how things are now, how they might be in the future and they ways of getting from here to there (receive). NB those in the bottom right corner - highly impacted on but not influential. Vulnerable and powerless. Pay particular attention to their views, make a big effort to hear them, and help them gain in influence if you can.
Those in the 'high/high' corner are the ones you need to work most closely with (collaborate), sharing the job of making sense of how things are now, co-creating options for the future, collaborating to make it happen. Because if they are not on board, you won't be able to design and implement the work.
Prioritise and plan
Now you are in a position to plan your engagement, knowing which stakeholders need mostly to be told, mostly to be listened to or mostly to be collaborated with.
Review and revise
Watch out for people and organisations moving over time. Very often the people in bottom right are the unorganised 'public'. They might be residents or consumers. If they get organised, or their cause is taken up by the media, a celebrity or a campaign group then their influence is likely to increase.
Those in the top left are potentially influential but unlikely to get involved because there's not so much in it for them. Your engagement plan might include helping them to see why their input is useful, and piquing their interest.
So stay alert to changes and alter your engagement plan accordingly.