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  • Mathew Stewart

Three essential questions to answer before engaging with stakeholders

Updated: Feb 3

Before talking to stakeholders about a project, engagement advisors and project managers should ask three essential questions to:

  • understand whether you need to seek feedback from stakeholders.

  • identify the project elements/decisions stakeholders can influence.

  • help you develop key messages for your stakeholders.

The three essential questions below are applicable for all types of projects, including strategy/policy development and physical works projects.


The three essential questions


The flow diagram below provides a brief overview and explanation of the three essential questions, further explanations are provided after the diagram.


Questions 1. What are the key project decisions?


Genuine public engagement should assist/influence project decisions. As such, the first step in a well-planned engagement process is to identify the key decisions of the project and when they need to be made. A project with multiple stages may need to make different decisions at each stage of the project.


For example, a project to upgrade Green Grass Park may have the following key project decisions:

  • Project initiation Should we upgrade Green Grass Park? What things could we do to make it better?

  • Concept/preliminary design What is the best concept/preliminary design? How could it be improved?

  • Detailed design What colour should we make the playground? What surface should we use for the path? What plants should we plant in the garden?


Question 2. What decisions have already been made?


If a decision has been made, then there’s no point in seeking feedback on that element of the project. As such, identifying project decisions that have already been made is essential. This will help you develop key messages for your stakeholders and set clear expectations as to what they can and cannot influence.


For example, after extensive public engagement the Reserves Improvement Plan was recently adopted by Council, it identifies Green Grass Park as the number one priority in the city for improvements.


In this situation the decision to upgrade the park has already been made. As such for a park upgrade project there is no sense in seeking stakeholder feedback as to whether improvements should be made to the park. Stakeholders should be informed from the outset of the engagement process that this decision has already been made (as well as letting them know how this decision was made).


Even though some decisions appear to have already been made, it is still a good idea to understand and test the rationale of previous decisions. For example, did the need for the project stem from:

  • concerns raised by the community?

  • a strategic document (if so, how were stakeholders and the community involved in shaping that document)?

  • a legislative requirement?

Answering these questions helps you to understand if your organisation still supports the previous decision and whether it will stand up to public scrutiny. After considering this you can make an informed decision whether to re-open the decision for stakeholder input. A useful way to gauge the strength of a previous decision is to consider whether you would revisit the decision if there was strong stakeholder backlash to it. If so, then you should consider seeking stakeholder feedback on that element of the project.


For example, safety improvements on Viewpoints Road was not a high priority for Council, however after a collision between a pedestrian and a vehicle, the community raised concerns about the safety of the road. The decision to initiative a project to install speed calming devices (speed bumps) was made as a result of the community’s concerns. Initial concept designs show that the speed calming devices will require the removal of lots of on-street car parking.


Because the project was effectively initiated by the community and there are contentious elements to the project (parking removal), it might be a good idea to seek feedback as to whether the community want the project to go ahead i.e. "Do you support the installation of speed calming devices on this street?". To ensure the engagement process is concise, this can be combined with other questions such as “What speed calming devices do you prefer?”.


Question 3. What decisions can stakeholders influence?


If you have responded to questions one and two, then this should be a pretty easy question to answer. Generally, project decisions that have not already been made, which could be influenced by stakeholder feedback should form the basis of your engagement approach.


For example, because the Reserves Improvement Plan:

  • underwent extensive public engagement

  • was recently adopted

  • identified Green Grass Park as the top priority in the city for improvements

Stakeholder feedback will not be requested as to whether improvements should be made to the park. Instead stakeholders will be asked to help make the following project decisions:

  • Project initiation What things could we do to make Green Grass Park better?

  • Concept/preliminary design What concept/preliminary design do you like best? How could it be improved?

  • Detailed design What colour should we make the playground? What surface should we use for the path? What plants should we plant in the garden?


#stakeholderengagement #stakeholders #engagement #projectmanagement #consult

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