Updated: Jul 1, 2021
For a moment, let's take the benefits of engagement as a given; improvements to the decision-making process, improved outcomes, strengthening relationships with stakeholders and the community, improving confidence in the decision making process, and so on.
What has struck me most in my time working with and within organisations to embed engagement into organisational processes is the risk of not planning for engagement early enough. The biggest risk of not planning early enough is that you proceed blindly without being aware of the potential risks of outrage, concern, dissent, etc… that the project can incite. This can have devastating consequences on a project and an organisation. I have seen numerous examples where projects have not engaged early and been forced to:
go back to the drawing board (to the design phase of the project),
experience substantial delays and uncertainty in the delivery of the project, or
experience significant impacts to the reputation of the organisation and to the morale of staff.
Early engagement planning clarifies the need for and level of engagement that is required to gain stakeholder and community support to deliver your project. The earlier in the project lifecycle (see a simplified diagram below) you do your engagement planning, the better chances you have of significantly reducing unforseen interruptions and delays.
Most projects can proceed with very little need for engagement (or engagement at the simpler ends of theIAP2 Public Participation Spectrum) however projects that require greater levels of engagement have this need for a reason. If a project has significant impacts on the community (actual or perceived), the potential for outrage significantly increases throughout the project lifecycle if they are excluded from the decision making process.
In my experience, factoring in the time required to do engagement planning at the beginning of the project can be a wise investment. Gaining an early understanding of how you will (or will not) engage stakeholders and the community in your project increases the chances that you will gain greater levels of support from stakeholders, regulators and politicians for your project and receive higher levels of trust from community members. Although people may feel that this is a time investment at the front end, over the life of the project this upfront investment is returned at the approvals and delivery stages (and beyond). Engagement won’t guarantee wholesale agreement, but it does make the decision making process clearer and more transparent for everyone (internally and externally) and increases the chances of the decision (and the decision making process) being supported by stakeholders and the community. If it’s going to have to happen at some point, dive in early and reap the rewards.