A solid community engagement and consultation plan is one of those communications specialities that, when done well, slips below the radar and is rarely recognised.
On the flipside, poor planning and integration of community engagement can derail entire projects.
Early, inclusive consultation has contributed to the success of many controversial and contentious projects – the Margaret River Perimeter Road is a shining example, while WaterCorp’s recent water pipes upgrade included consultation to local businesses for more than a year before works began.
So, what are the fundamentals of a strong community consultation plan?
1. Know why you’re consulting
Community consultation takes many forms, from informing stakeholders of a change, new policy or project, all the way through to empowering the community to make the final decision. Having a clear understanding of why you’re consulting and what the problem is that is going to be addressed, answered or resolved is crucial to building an appropriate engagement plan.
2. Be clear on what is and is not negotiable
What can your stakeholders influence and what is set in stone? In the development of the Margaret River Perimeter Road, for example, the local community could not influence the route of the road, but it did influence revegetation, the use of materials and many other supportive components of the project.
3. Map your stakeholders….
Spending time mapping your stakeholders is crucial. Brainstorm all the people and groups who have an interest in the project – whether that is economic, environmental, political or social. Once you have this list segment your stakeholders into four groups depending on their level of interest (high/low) and their level of influence (high/low). This will help determine how you communicate with and consult with your stakeholders. For example, groups with high interest and little influence (community groups) have potential to lobby more influential stakeholders (stakeholders) and shift the balance of power.
4. …and don’t forget they may change
Reviewing your consultation plan and stakeholder list is crucial, particularly for medium to long-term projects. Often new stakeholders will emerge (think Facebook groups) while others may shift in influence or interest – a project can be made or broken by a low interest/high influence stakeholder who suddenly shifts gear and gains interest (ie. a Member of Parliament).
5. There’s method to the madness
It’s all well and good to pop an advertisement in the paper, put out a discussion paper, compile the answers and say you’ve consulted with the community. But if you’ve spent time working through the negotiables, mapping your stakeholders and understanding the community’s level of participation, then chances are you’re a little savvier and also know the methods of consultation will need to be tailored to stakeholders depending on all of those points. Brochures, flyers and advertisements are good methods for informing stakeholders, while workshops, polling and face to face meetings are critical when stakeholders have the opportunity to get involved. When planning the various methods you’ll use to consult, it’s also critical to review any barriers that may inhibit people from participating – these are things such as geography, technology, language, culture and competing priorities (ie. family commitments).
Effective and thorough community consultation planning is much more likely to lead to effective outcomes, not just for you or your company, but for the entire community. Take the time to plan the community consultation required for your next project or announcement and you may well be surprised at the results.