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Mar 30

The Quest for Supportive Stakeholder Engagement

Stakeholder Engagement

All the world’s a site,

And all the men and women potential stakeholders;

They have their exits and their entrances, …

(With apologies to William Shakespeare, As You Like It, first published around 1623)

Moving swiftly on before we have to think about mewling and puking and so on, the purpose of this article is to consider some factors in the quest for supportive stakeholder engagement.  The purpose of the headlines is to emphasise the diversity of projects and of the people who can have interests in their outcomes.  That diversity can be a source of the excitement and frustration in such a quest, and can take an unguardedly curious person into some fascinating avenues of enquiry that far exceed the project’s needs.

Stakeholders can be categorised by their degree of involvement in the project, from the client, past the project manager, the designers and contractors and their boards of directors, to the sub-contractors and their labourers.  Stakeholders can be financiers and insurers; affected neighbours; local and national authorities; and prospective occupiers, operators and maintainers.  Some stakeholders, like politicians and corporate executives, can have their own stakeholders to engage with in their turn.  The list is potentially endless and depends on the location and nature of the project.

Stakeholders being (on the whole) people, they bring with them their interests – not only in the business sense, but also in the sense of their politics, religion, culture, self-perceived reputation, financial standing and even hobbies or favourite causes célèbres.  Animals can be stakeholders too, although they need people to stand up for them, like the environmentalists who correctly identified the need for highway bridges over elephant paths in Kenya.  The religious dimension may seem obscure, but if you need to clear a Church of England graveyard you will need a “bishops faculty” and need to allow about six weeks in the programme to obtain it, not counting the discussions that precede the application.

The law is, as ever, an important consideration.  It can give the developer significant power if he or she can deploy compulsory purchase or arrange for an Act of Parliament to underpin the project.  The law will provide sound foundations for enabling agreements, procurement and contracting, but it will also rightly constrain the project’s freedom of action in the public interest.

The development of a stakeholder engagement strategy might start with consideration of how much impact a stakeholder can have on the success of the project, and how close the relationship should be with the executive client.  I use that term here because the ultimate client might be a department of state or a consortium which operates through an agency or special project company, in which case the executive client – the agency or SPC – would also need to manage stakeholders “upwards”.

How can the interests of stakeholders with a high potential impact be aligned with those of the client?  Can they be brought into the project team, or (if applicable) into the special project company or even the ultimate client consortium?  The nature of the project might make it desirable to involve the future maintainers as well as the constructors, and if that is impracticable, then a surrogate might need to be engaged to protect the maintainer’s perspective until the actual one is appointed.

A more difficult part of the strategy might be how to engage stakeholders who hold approval rights over the project but who have no direct interest in its success.  The procurement strategy might consider what constitutes reasonable cause for rejection of the project’s proposals, and who holds the liability for the risk that someone thinks in due course that the approvals body is behaving unreasonably.  This could be mission-critical if the approver has to take over assets before the project can proceed.

Once the engagement strategy has been settled, thought can turn to tactics, which could be more time-consuming for stakeholders who are more remote from the project.  Various motherhood statements come to mind at this point – different strokes for different folks; no surprises; tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them and then tell them what you told them.  I’m not sure which motherhood statements apply in the following cases, but it could be ineffective to tell just one person in a multi-faceted stakeholder, and embarrassing, not to say possibly disastrous, to lose stakeholder confidence.  Dedicated personnel may be appropriate to manage stakeholders, individually, in groups or en masse, and to develop the wider project team’s understanding of the stakeholders’ interests.  As with all project management activities, plan – do – review is a valuable technique to make sure that the strategy and tactics are effective, or to stimulate change if they are not.

Understanding stakeholders can be crucial to success, along with the application of that knowledge with foresight, so that necessary stakeholder support, agreement or approval is obtained as cost-effectively as practicable.  Perhaps even more importantly, timely agreement or approval could be critical to passing a gateway test or hold point.

Achieving supportive stakeholder engagement can not only be crucial to a successful project, it can be repetitive and frustrating – but it can also be fascinating!

Bob Crease was employed by the client organisation on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Project (now called High Speed 1) from 1998 to 2007.  When he left at the end of construction on time and within the budget of £5.4bn, he was Executive Director of CTRL (UK) Ltd.  He now practises as a construction adjudicator and independent consultant, and is a member of the Resolex RADAR Panel.

© Robert J. Crease & Co. Limited

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