Engagement is not consultation (and you need to start planning differently)

Engagement is a tricky term. How it is understood can vary depending on the context or organisation. At worst it rebrands consultation, when consultation has lost favour. This misses an opportunity, and will repeat the same mistakes. Engagement is not simply synonymous with consultation. It requires thinking about and involving stakeholders from the earliest planning stages of a project, right through until after its implementation.

“Today the danger may be that the idea has become fashionable. It is on everyone’s tongue, which is not to say that it is better understood.”

Nathaniel Branden (in reference to self-esteem, but equally applicable here)

When we describe employee engagement, we mean the alignment of staff to the values of the company and connection with their work. Stakeholder engagement is similar. By understanding engagement to mean ‘alignment to’ or ‘connection with’, the dynamic shifts, changing how we plan it. Instead of asking “how should we get input on this policy”, we can ask “how can we ensure alignment or connection to the policy/program”.

These two framings immediately bring to mind different activities you would use to deliver the same project. The first question leads to surveys or traditional submission-based consultation. Whereas the second requires a bit more thought: a comms plan perhaps, deeper consideration of who to involve, and stepped activities that build stakeholder capability to meaningfully contribute.

So how should I plan for engagement?

Right from the beginning, there is a place for engagement. Informal, even internal engagement is better than no engagement work at all. As soon as you begin mapping out your project steps and stages, start building out your engagement plan.

Having an engagement plan to help you design, manage, track and document your engagement is important. You can create one at any time, whether you are just starting to draft a New Policy Proposal or in the midst of detailing an implementation plan.

For each stage of your project, question how input from others could help you get better results and have them feel engaged by the process at the same time. It’s not necessarily about giving up control, but assuming a more humble mindset. Sometimes others can spot gaps that aren’t obvious to you. And lowering risk is a core benefit of engagement over consultation.

What should be in my engagement plan?

It is helpful for your engagement plan to be a living document. So you start with a ‘strawhorse’ plan and slowly finalise it as you work. This makes reporting on your engagement at any point simple and quick. And you can be more confident in being transparent about your process.

Your engagement plan will usually start with key information about the broader project, the purpose of engagement, and most importantly a breakdown of all of the stakeholders who will be affected by or have influence on your project. Keeping this mapping in one place is helpful. You’ll probably need to copy or summarise this information into various internal documents such as regulation impact statements.

We recommend then breaking the rest of the plan out into stages or ’rounds’ of engagement. For example, a first round might be getting your new policy proposal document completed. By breaking your engagement into rounds, you can get more specific about the purpose of engagement at that point in time, who is appropriate to involve, and record the input you receive.

Keeping a record of all your engagement (planned and delivered) is key to shifting from a consultation to an engagement mindset.

What is the benefit of having a separate engagement plan?

As you work through your project, you’ll probably deliver any number of documents for internal and external use. Some of these will make reference to engagement planned or delivered, but none really allow for much detail.

Having a living record of your planned and delivered engagement helps:

  • Coordinate any work required to deliver the engagement activities
  • Enable easy reporting on what engagement has been done, why, and what impact it had
  • Save time as you aren’t starting your thinking from scratch at each new project stage
  • Let you quickly produce reports to provide transparency to stakeholders themselves on how they have impacted a process.

Whether you are working in Microsoft Word, or our planning app Scaffle, keeping a record of all your engagement (planned or delivered) is key to shifting from a consultation to an engagement mindset. When you can see the big picture, relationships, and when to connect with stakeholders, planning is easier. Ultimately it will make a world of difference in how you engage your stakeholders, and the quality of that engagement.