Before starting with implementing a participatory process, it is important to ensure that you have support from key internal and external stakeholders.
Participatory processes that do not have this support risk doing more harm than good, by raising expectations in the community and not delivering on what is heard. This chapter sets out a few things to think about before you start, as well as tips for making the case to stakeholders.
Securing stakeholder support
The design of a participation exercise is not simply about planning how to engage with the local community – engaging the internal and external stakeholders who will need to listen and respond is just as critical. It doesn’t matter how good a community engagement process is, without that institutional buy-in it risks just becoming a talking shop, which will damage trust and future engagement.
A key part of this is being clear about how input from the community is going to dock into your decision-making processes and those of key partners. Is there a particular plan or strategy that it will inform? Will the findings and/or recommendations be considered at a council meeting? Being clear about this upfront is important for giving residents assurance that their engagement is worthwhile (while not overpromising), but also in ensuring that you can put the right processes in place to see it through.
Before you start with a community engagement process, therefore, you will need to think about who will need to be involved in hearing and responding to what the community says. It is advisable to engage these stakeholders as early as possible in the process, both to understand what the opportunity is for influence and to build their buy-in and ownership. As you do this, you will likely need to think about securing the support of senior officials and councillors who will champion the process and respond to the community.
As you do this, it is important to bear in mind that public views often do not map neatly onto organisational responsibilities and functions. A conversation that starts with public health, for example, could end up spanning across health service provision, built environment, natural environment, education and beyond. It may be necessary, therefore, to engage a wide range of internal and external stakeholders who have responsibility for related issues.
Engaging stakeholders should not just come at the beginning of the process. You will likely need to continue to maintain this engagement and buy-in throughout in order to keep the space open for the community to have influence. This can be challenging, as competing organisational, political and/or contextual pressures build to make decisions and announcements as quickly as possible. One way of maintaining this stakeholder engagement – and also benefiting from different sources of insight, networks and (potentially) resources – is to involve key stakeholders in a programme or advisory group.
Making the case
As you look to engage stakeholders, you will want to think through the different arguments you can use to make the case for involving the community, and which are likely to be most influential. Here are some you could try.
This is an opportunity to:
Actively hear from and engage with social groups whose voices have come to the fore through the pandemic. This will help the local authority to understand and be responsive to the diversity of lived experiences of Covid-19, new vulnerabilities that have emerged and changing expectations;
Sustain community capacity over time by building on the growth of grassroots connections and the new local resources that have emerged such as the upsurge of local mutual aid groups;
Foster trust with communities through engaging residents effectively in the difficult choices and trade-offs ahead;
Build on the opportunities to engage with residents in new ways through the greater connectivity afforded by people’s experience of using online platforms (whilst recognising the inclusion issues that still exist);
Harness the appetite for change that Covid has highlighted – from responding to inequalities through to the climate crisis.