The social license to operate refers to the ongoing perceptions, acceptance and approval of a project among its stakeholders, and is granted by the stakeholder community. In order for social license to be determined for a project, efforts have to be made to measure these beliefs and perceptions. Since beliefs and perceptions can change over the lifespan of a project, social license needs to not only be earned but also preserved.
Understanding stakeholders and their needs.
Stakeholders are the local community and other interested parties, such as NGOs, government and other organizations. It is that diverse group of people’s beliefs, opinions and perceptions that make up their collective feelings about a project. Acquiring social licence from stakeholders is a complex exercise, and when not done effectively can result in the delay or cancellation of a project.
For companies proposing projects, the social license to operate is something only stakeholders can grant. Companies should be aware that social license is a dynamic, mostly intangible concept that can change and evolve over time. Therefore, it must be gained and then maintained over the course of a project’s lifespan.
Research shows the concept of social license depends on stakeholders’ perceptions of the project—first the project must be viewed as legitimate in order for it to have credibility. A company must therefore understand a group or community’s social, cultural and legal norms before engaging them. Having this understanding legitimizes and lends credibility to the process, as does sharing clear and accurate information under an established communications framework.
Levels of social license.
Trust takes time and effort to cultivate, and requires shared experiences throughout the stakeholder engagement process. Even if a project travels through the stages of legitimacy, credibility and trust, stakeholder approval is still not guaranteed. It is not a case of “Yes” or “No”, as there will be different levels of stakeholder support. These can include:
- Acceptance: stakeholders accept the project. This is viewed as a primary level of social license.
- Approval: this is a higher level of social license that carries more weight and is more desirable for all parties.
- Becoming part of the social fabric: this occurs when projects transcend acceptance and approval, and become part of a community’s collective identity.
Best practices to achieve and measure social license.
Some pitfalls that can have an impact on your project’s ability to achieve social license to operate are:
- Failing to engage a community early enough in the process.
- Not taking the time to understand the norms of a community of stakeholders.
- Failure to accommodate the diverse range of knowledge and behaviours across stakeholder groups.
- Not investing enough time for the process and for relationship building.
- Overestimating support for a project.
Best practices to achieve, measure and maintain social license include:
- Understanding the context of the project/issue with respect to stakeholders, as well as identifying external influencing factors.
- Engaging and building relationships with all stakeholders, including those opposed to your project.
- Communicating early and with as much transparency as possible.
- Considering what resources and background stakeholders will need in order to understand your project, and how often updates should be provided.
- Continuously using findings to review strategies and methods of stakeholder engagement throughout the lifecycle of your project. Doing so will maximize improvements to stakeholder engagement and increase project support.
- And finally, making good use of a secure online stakeholder management solution to centrally document engagement strategies and outcomes of stakeholder engagement activities.
To be confident of the status of a social license, it needs to be measured and documented. The results are used to modify activities with the intention of improving the quality of the relationship between the project and the community/stakeholders. A project that lacks a meaningful stakeholder engagement process can lead to politicization of the process and delays, but done effectively social license is an achievable goal for those who can make longterm investments in the process.