By Susan Lassesen
For a host of evolving cultural reasons, companies and other organisations today are required to be open and accessible, while facing a background of low public trust in business, media and government. To complicate matters further, companies in certain sectors like development and construction, are legally obligated to consult the public before submitting applications that affect communities.
Policies shape incentives for behaviour, meaning that more and more businesses consult the public on matters such as development schemes and planning applications.
Yet during any consultation process, there is always a risk that businesses may encounter fierce questioning or even a backlash from the community they try to engage with, putting them on the back foot and making them unsure of how to handle future consultations and encounters with the public.
Indeed, it’s worth noting that as people become more used to having their say as part of community consultation exercises, they often – via online sources like social media – have better access to information than in the past. This means that local voices will investigate matters they find suspicious and pursue clarification where they think it necessary.
Combining this with a general ethos of public engagement and policies that encourage community empowerment, it means that local communities are ever increasingly important stakeholders – especially, when dealing with local development projects. Yet building and managing relationships with local communities can be challenging and the execution of well-designed processes has never been more important.
Best practice guides in public engagement are widely used by charities and ‘democratic innovators’ involved with processes like participative budgeting, to make democracy more inclusive and to empower communities, but it also presents possible benefits to businesses that need to reach out to communities. The most important ones are:
- Better solutions – local knowledge of the area and the community might provide valuable information that allows businesses to come up with better solutions before implementing a project.
- Lower costs in the long run – issues raised beforehand might help optimise project and time management, saving businesses time and money.
- Better relationship with the community – increased the open channels of communication and collaboration with communities could help a project become an integral part of the community both now and in the future.
Every engagement exercise is different and ill-suited to a one-size-fits-all solution, but there are some general best-practice guidelines to think about before and during engagement which may help you realise these benefits:
- Be clear on the purpose of the engagement both to yourself and the community. Also, be mindful of any promises you make on the outset of the project and that the community are likely to remember those that remain undelivered.
- Legitimacy, accountability and transparency – make sure that people acknowledge your role in the project, that you follow through with what you promise and that you allow people to see how you are following through – and if necessary, why you are not able to do so.
- Community engagement takes time and involves a wide range of stakeholders. If it is meaningful for the project to involve the community, time dedicated to the engagement process should be planned well in advance to make sure that you engage with the right people at the right time and that the input you receive is useful at that stage of the project
Just as with communications overall, authenticity is key. If you convey an authentic interest when engaging with communities they will be more likely to work proactively with you and help you create the best possible outcome for everyone.
In other words, authentic engagement isn’t just a matter of obligation and inconvenience for companies, but something that – if done right – will bring added benefits to your business.
Susan Lassesen is an Account Executive at Indigo and focused on design and delivery of public engagements during her Master of Public Policy degree at the University of Edinburgh.
To find out more about public engagement with Indigo, contact Peter Smyth on 0131 554 1146.