5 strategies to improve your community engagement plan (and results)
Conducting engagement activity designed to involve your community and stakeholders in the development and implementation of policy, programs and projects are required more and more these days. So your community engagement plan is an essential business tool and your should find out how to improve your engagement plan.
Why is a great community engagement plan is important?
A genuine community engagement approach can achieve great results for projects. A planned, genuine approach to your community engagement program will deliver innovative results and develop strong, sustained relationships across your communities.
However, poorly planned and executed engagement activity can be a major problem. Engagement activity that is not planned, is really just a communication exercise or undertaken for less than genuine reasons will breed mistrust, poor relationships, hinder implementation timelines, blow budgets and in the worse case scenarios leave your communities frustrated, angry and divided. All of this can spell disaster for your organisations brand and your own personal brand.
So, improving your approach to planning and establishing a genuine engagement is a must do for anyone who has been told that engaging the community is an important element of their project, policy development or program. Here’s 5 strategies to think about.
Here’s a couple of resources if you’re not sure what’s in an engagement plan.
If you have an engagement plan…
If you already have a plan grab it out and let’s take a look at it.
Is your engagement plan and activity working alongside your project plan to deliver the business results you’re after? Do you have a thorough understanding of who your stakeholders are and are not (that is, you know your stakeholders aren’t ‘everyone’ or ‘the community’ they are targetted, people and groups)? Are the actions in your engagement plan delivering a genuine opportunity for stakeholders to be involved where their value and interest lies? Do you have actions and activities across the engagement spectrum (again, depending on where the value and interest of your stakeholders lie)? Are you agile? Can you change your approach if something works really well (or doesn’t work at all)?
How to improve your engagement plan
If you answered “no” to any of the questions above here are five(5) strategies that will improve your plan and results.
1.Invest time in understanding your stakeholders
A stakeholder analysis is invaluable to your community engagement effectiveness. In fact, if you do nothing else, just investing time towards understanding your stakeholders will improve your effectiveness.
A stakeholder analysis should investigate a broad range of audiences and stakeholders from those demanding to be let into the process to those YOU need to be involved. The analysis should come from a place of positive mindset toward your stakeholders and the expertise, values and alternative perspectives they will offer. An analysis of your stakeholders should explore the impact of the project on your stakeholders, their influence over it, their relationships, skills, expertise, position and interests. Once this background research and analysis has been undertaken an approach to work with your range of stakeholders can be developed.
Spending time on understanding who your stakeholders are in this way will be invaluable to your success. As working with ‘everyone’ or broad groups like ‘the community’ is akin to working with no one.
2. Plan what you want to achieve and what is negotiable and non-negotiable
You should be upfront and let your stakeholders know the environment you’re operating in, that is what is negotiable and what is non–negotiable. So if your budget is set in stone, for example, let your stakeholders know from the start.
A clear vision and outcomes are essential to creating quality community engagement. This is because the process or activity you undertake should match the purpose of doing the engagement in the first place. Without a clear vision and set of outcomes your engagement will feel like a bit of a waste of time to both you AND your stakeholders.
3. Invest in the engagement capability of staff
Like all specialist areas, community engagement has a range of capability areas that will help staff be more confident and effective with stakeholders. This includes being able to listen to, confidently interact and collaborate with others all the way up to developing the capabilities to plan, deliver and evaluate engagement programs for complex projects and issues.
It often seems that staff across other disciplines are just expected to be able to work with stakeholders. However, in my experience, just being told to do community engagement doesn’t necessarily mean any of your staff will have these capabilities on hand. Sometimes, they might even make a situation worse.
For some, improving engagement capability is about being able to look someone in the eye, shake their hand and engage in a conversation. Whilst, for others, it will be about engagement mindset – understanding that just because someone doesn’t have the ‘right’ degree doesn’t mean they don’t have something valuable to contribute.
4. Plan to implement across the Engagement Spectrum
The Engagement Spectrum is an internationally recognised model for engagement. The spectrum neatly allocates all engagement activity into 5 unique categories. Click the image below to discover the wonderful order of the Engagement Spectrum.
A lot of organisations have the category ‘Inform’ pretty well covered – this is media, social, fact sheets, brochures etc – anything that delivers timely information to stakeholders. You may have experience with ‘Consult’ – this is an area concerned with getting feedback on a solution and often takes to form of surveys.
As an engagement specialist, the bulk of my experience is working with Involve to Empower strategies and developing the capability of others to do the same (or just making sure they construct a decent survey!). For the most part, if you are having trouble with stakeholders it’s because they no avenues to be involved in the project beyond a survey (beyond consult) but they what more. Understanding your stakeholders and plotting their involvement across the engagement spectrum will ensure the right stakeholders are engaged in the appropriate level of activity for them and you.
5. Be agile
A program of monitoring, review and the ability to adapt should be in place. For all types of projects sometimes all the planning in the world can’t predict when something just doesn’t work or when something works so well you want to do more of it.
I’ve seen both of these scenarios happen. The ability to pick up the early indicators and adapt is crucial. Of course, sometimes when you start an engagement process the situation can feel like it gets worse before it gets better (especially if you’re operating in an environment with frustrated/angry stakeholders). In these circumstances, you need to trust the planning you’ve done and the process you’ve put in place. Let me illustrate that with a story…
I was once given an early indicator that a process I’d planned and put in place wasn’t going to work. It was when a really important (hostile) stakeholder gave me a call and said ‘this process is flawed, you’ve misread the situation, it’s going to go badly’… (true story, that’s what he said)
But it’s always important to know where your stakeholders are coming from, isn’t it? And I knew this stakeholder had a vested interest in the process not working so the status quo could be maintained.
Sometimes you’ve got to know when to hold’em and when to fold’em. Having capable staff and a good plan is all you need to know which one you need to do.
So there you go, 5 strategies that will improve your engagement plan and therefore, results. There are, of course, other strategies that will improve your engagement impact. These include things like identifying and managing stakeholder risk, sorting governance out and tracking your results (so you can sing the praises of you and your team members!). But more about those another day.
If you need to consider how your engagement plan is working click the link below to take advantage of a special introductory offer to have The Community Studio review your engagement plan. Your review will be undertaken by an independent, engagement specialist. Your report back will detail improvements and opportunities. Invest in and Engagement Plan Review and book a discovery call to discuss your plan with The Community Studio today. Click the link below.
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