by Louise Worsley

Meaningful stakeholder engagement

Stakeholder management

Meaningful Stakeholder Engagement
Meaningful stakeholder engagement

I have, for some time now, had a distinct dislike of the phrase 'stakeholder management'. Along with other phrases such as 'change passengers' so commonly used around change – it conveys an attitude toward our fellow staff which seems patronising in the extreme. But perhaps, most importantly, it reinforces the view that many people impacted by change have: that change is something being done to them; something being done in spite of their views and needs.

Social development projects, where success is ultimately measured by societal acceptance, have long recognised the need for participative planning and meaningful stakeholder engagement. In this environment, it is crucial to establish relations with stakeholders as a means to manage the impact and ensure the sustainability of those changes. Organisations can choose either to attempt to manage stakeholders and mitigate the risks associated with stakeholder resistance, or exploit the energy from change through the use of meaningful stakeholder engagement. 

As with any business process, the process for stakeholder engagement should be systematic, practical and, most importantly, pragmatic. It is not about setting the outcome and leading the stakeholders there – after all, have we not proved enough times that this just does not work?

It is more about framing the change journey and listening and participating with stakeholders in how best to navigate the journey. An illustration of this is given from a case study write-up of an informal settlements project in Cape Town.

In 2010, it was necessary to organise the emergency relocation of informal dwellings constructed in the Burundi floodplain just outside Cape Town. Replacement dwellings were created in Mfuleni, but the Mfuleni residents were not happy. This was not simply because they did not want ‘newcomers’; its root cause was a perceived lack of ‘fairness’.

From their perspective, the people from Burundi who had built shacks on floodplains (areas that are not approved for dwellings), had managed to ‘jump the queue’ and get access to new dwellings. The local facilitators who had been asked to explore the cause of the tensions found a very strong sense of social fairness in the Mfuleni community, nicely summarised by one resident who said, “This is not fair: we have families in our own area who have been waiting for years for better dwellings”.

Eventually, a negotiated solution was worked through, whereby those Mfuleni residents who had been living on the dry areas of the floodplain (and who had been living there for longer than those living in the wet area) were moved into the new dwellings and the people from the Burundi floodplains were moved into dry areas vacated by people who had been relocated to the new dwellings.

A compromise was also reached whereby the beneficiaries group was a split between people living in the floodplain and residents who were living in similar emergency situations in backyards in the formal area.

Social fairness is a well-developed sense, particularly in tight-knit communities, and is concerned with who gains what and whether the outcome and the process is seen as equitable by the parties affected. Without mechanisms for analysing fairness and dealing with community reactions to the consequences of compromises, the success of projects subject to it have very limited chances of success.  

(Source: "Beginning with the end in mind: A case study on social development projects in the Cape Town Informal Settlements", The Project Manager, December 2011)

With so many projects failing when measured in terms of their adoption rates and in terms of sustained change, organisations can no longer choose whether they want to engage with stakeholders or not – the only decision is when and how.

Let’s start by not managing stakeholders, but rather creating an environment for meaningful engagement. 

Here are some suggested guidelines to get us started:

  • Stakeholders should have a say in decisions about actions that could affect their working environment and working practice.
  • Stakeholder participation seeks input from participants in designing how they participate.
  • Stakeholder participation includes the promise that the stakeholders' contribution will influence the decision.
  • Stakeholder participation provides participants with the information they need to participate in a meaningful way.
  • Stakeholder participation communicates to participants how their input affected the decision.

For more information, Contact Sally Pike

By Louise Worsley, Executive director and founder of PiCubed


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Issue 29


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