- Leigh Hornsby
Stakeholders Q&A: Who They Are and How to Involve Them
Q: Who are stakeholders? As public involvement specialists we are often asked this question, and the answer is both simple and complex.
A: A stakeholder is any person who has an interest or responsibility for a project or initiative. According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, they are the people who have a stake in a course of action. If you think long enough, you can identify numerous stakeholders for any given project, especially when it comes to public projects. It gets challenging when determining which of those stakeholders should be brought to the table in a project’s decision-making process.
Stakeholders can be governmental policy makers, project-related agency officials, neighboring residents and/or representatives from the public and special interest groups.
Q: There is a lot of buzz about bringing stakeholders to the table for important projects, but does that actually ensure that their voices are heard?
A: No. There is a common misconception that presenting information to stakeholders somehow checks a box. Certainly, presenting information is important; however, stakeholders need to be well informed before they share their insights.
Q: How do we obtain and use stakeholder input?
A: There are efficient ways to engage those stakeholders and take note of their feedback through meeting minutes and comment opportunities. These should be supplemented with surveys, project websites and defined opportunities for stakeholders to provide email information, phone calls and/or mail-in options.
At a minimum, there should be opportunities for open dialogue at the beginning of any project through a combination of presenting information and opening the floor for deliberate dialogue. And that dialogue should be quantified and included in project decision making. The same thing should happen before the end of a project so that stakeholders know that their input matters. If the project is large, ongoing updates and dialogues should continue on a regular basis.
Q: Can you engage too many stakeholders?
A: No. Having a lot of stakeholders means that you are informing and engaging a wide audience. The more important question is: Are they the right stakeholders, and are you providing them with various opportunities to engage? When you create an engagement plan, interview people in the know and conduct independent research to determine if you are bringing people to the table who have the most at stake. Once you know that everyone impacted has had an opportunity to share their insights, you have done your job.