Stakeholder consultation is increasingly becoming a commonplace business practice that is in line with many companies’ policies of corporate social responsibility. In many cases it is also mandated by government and must be undertaken.
If executed effectively, the stakeholder consultation process can actually result in participants changing their initial standpoint on the project, development or issue under discussion. This occurs only when participants feel engaged, valued and invested in the process, and when they receive sufficient clear information about the project or proposal to make the most effective decision about it.
Effective stakeholder engagement follows a prescription that targets the right groups, involves participants in a meaningful way, and makes use of the information collected to inform a proposal.
One of the most important aspects of consultation is for the proponent not to have any predetermined outcomes for the process. That is, no decisions should be decided prior to initiating consultation. If stakeholders feel any area is not up for discussion, they will be mistrustful of the process.
Targeting the right groups involves including certain groups, especially those who will be or will deem themselves to be affected by the project or proposal, those who can add new information to the discussion, those who it would not be wise to exclude, and those the proponent is mandated to consult.
Participants should be engaged in ways that are suitable for them and make the process easy. Increasingly in today’s connected world, this involves engaging participants online so they may contribute when it’s convenient for them. Giving stakeholders the ability to comment anonymously is invaluable, as is offering a range of approaches such as focus groups, surveys, forums, questions and answer opportunities, etc.
Stakeholders who are not properly informed about a project may not initially be in favour of it. For that reason, proponents must engage in educating stakeholders during the consultation process and highlighting the positive effects of the proposal. Offering accurate information about a proposal, project or initiative will allow those being consulted to provide more accurate and pertinent comments to the process, and will also increase their own understanding.
Part of meaningful engagement also means that the proponent will take the information gathered during the consultation process into account and make any necessary changes to the application as a result. Changes or alterations should be communicated to stakeholders to reflect this commitment.
Some of the additional positive outcomes for an engaging stakeholder consultation process that shifts stakeholders’ perception include:
- Improved relationships between proponent and stakeholders
- Changed perceptions of the proposal and the proponent company as a result of information sharing
- Improved communication channels
- Generation of new ideas to inform the project or proposal
- Identification and diffusion of potential conflict areas before they arise
- Support and goodwill for the proposal
As a proponent, having the right intentions to educate and inform stakeholders about your proposal – as well as being willing to change it depending on the input gathered – is the right approach to changing minds during the stakeholder consultation process.