Engaging Public Agency Stakeholders Early and Often

Kentucky state officials launched a bold effort to build one of the nation’s largest publicly owned broadband networks in 2015. The project, which was expected to drive economic development in rural areas, has since become a cautionary tale about what can happen when citizens and public agency stakeholders aren’t engaged early on.

Wired Kentucky plans called for 3,000 miles of fiber optic cables, private-sector partnerships, and engagement from citizens and public agency stakeholders across 120 counties. The project stalled as private property owners routinely refused to grant land easements and local governments, some already operating public broadband networks of their own, proved difficult to negotiate with. By October 2017, fewer than 20 miles of fiber had been laid — and the project’s fate was uncertain.

For public engagement professionals, those challenges are probably familiar ones. Multi-agency engagement is an age-old challenge, and this example serves as a modern microcosm. But, by engaging the public and public agency stakeholders early and often, these types of challenges can be foreseen, navigated and circumvented.

Starting from the Top: Identifying Public Agency Stakeholders Early On

Early public engagement reduces the likelihood that a citizen group will come forward later in the process and voice opposition that stalls or halts project implementation. And, as Wired Kentucky demonstrates, the same is true of public agency stakeholders.

Daniel Adams, Executive Director of The Langdon Group, explains, “We’re not just looking at the public anymore.” Engaging public agency stakeholders with online tools can result in smoother implementation, operational efficiencies and better working relations with public agency stakeholders — but identifying them is a challenging first step.

Even “small” projects have stakeholders that span numerous agencies. Sara Ijadi, Active Transportation and Public Health Planner at Mid-Region Council of Governments, said multi-agency steering committees sometimes fail to adequately identify ala of the interconnected stakeholders. When that occurs, additional time and energy is required to circle back, so it’s important to do “a scan of who’s out there” early on, Ijadi adds.

Building Success: Engaging Stakeholders Early and Often

Once stakeholders are identified, a comprehensive approach to determine their initial stance and priorities should be undertaken. Online tools like IdeaMapr can help track this input as it changes over the life of the project, which assists in both relationship management and quantifying ROI of engagement.

Online tools can be used to determine if a public agency stakeholder has undertaken a similar project, or if they have plans to in the future, from the onset. Sara Ijadi warns that project managers should be “wary of missing stakeholders on projects that are already ongoing.”

And, after initial contact, online tools can help maintain engagement with stakeholders as projects evolve, building trust and reducing the potential for costly delays when approvals are needed. After all, public agency stakeholders have invaluable insights about approvals and reviews that fall under their purview.

Reaching Out Early and Tracking ROI of Engagement

Identifying and engaging public agency stakeholders early is a critical step in determining the ROI of engagement efforts. Again, as a project advances, stakeholder opinions and priorities evolve. Tracking these changing views with online tools will help quantify how outreach and engagement influenced the overall outcome of the project.

Stakeholder engagement also allows for lessons learned from previous efforts to be carried forward, resulting in more efficient implementation and operational savings. Documenting occasions when stakeholder engagement helps foresee or overcome roadblocks is a critical aspect of quantifying the ROI of engagement.

Finally, public agency stakeholder engagement builds stronger relationships and makes future collaboration more likely. Using online tools to track how a stakeholder’s opinion of a project or agency changes should be factored into the ROI of engagement. In the end, stakeholder engagement builds stronger long-term relationships while making projects themselves more impactful.

View expressed in article are the professional opinions of the practitioners who participated and their participation in this article is not an endorsement of the IdeaMapr Engagement Tool

Photo by Jay Baker