Stakeholder engagement and advocacy key to infrastructure projects

Looking at the role of stakeholder engagement and advocacy in infrastructure projects, Jo Field provides her top five tips.

Brexit negotiations are in the early stages, and uncertainty around the topic remains. One thing that’s clear, however, is the importance of continuing investment in major infrastructure, to drive growth.  

So where does stakeholder engagement and advocacy fit in? The answer - it’s the key to making these projects happen!

What is stakeholder engagement and why is it important?

Stakeholder engagement means building relationships with the communities and groups that are interested in your project, and creating opportunities for decision makers to hear from the people their decisions directly affect - the stakeholders. Engaging with stakeholders means better policy decisions are made.

For example, engaging with disabled people’s organisations and involving them early in shaping your scheme will ensure you get things right first time, rather than spending money on expensive retrofitting later. Involving local communities in plans will also help improve a project. After all, local people are often the experts on what will and won’t work for their area.

And importantly when people feel they’ve been listened to and have had an opportunity to contribute, they’re more likely to become advocates for a project. 

What is an advocate, and why do we need them?

Advocates are people, or groups, who are willing to support your project. They can help make the case for and shape the scheme. And stakeholder advocates will applaud delivery of the project if their views have been considered and things have been done well.

Infrastructure projects, especially major ones, need advocates from a range of sectors; including business, industry, communities, campaign groups and equalities groups. As an example, young people, and the organisations which represent them, can be fantastic advocates for your project. Young people are the future of society. They’re our prospective engineering and infrastructure workforce, and upcoming business, industry and political leaders.  So it’s only right they have a say in decisions that will affect them.

By involving young people, we will ignite interest in engineering and related careers. We will build the skills pipeline for the future. And we will educate future business and political leaders about the importance of infrastructure to drive growth. Today’s young people will be the decision makers on the infrastructure projects of the future. And they’ll be the main users and beneficiaries of the projects being built today. Young people are a major stakeholder group, so we need to get our infrastructure schemes right for them. 

Do infrastructure projects need stakeholder advocates to make them happen?

The answer to this is undoubtedly "yes!"

The Crossrail project is a fantastic example of this. Crossrail finally came to fruition because business backed it and was willing to campaign for it, and pay its share of the costs. 

If we spend time engaging a range of stakeholders on infrastructure schemes, it will not only help to gain their support, but will also help drive the project forward. Having a two-way dialogue with stakeholder groups, listening to what they think and acting on suggestions will ensure the project gains momentum, as stakeholders will have a personal interest in its completion. By doing this we will build advocates for our infrastructure projects. 

At which stage can stakeholders help your infrastructure project?

Stakeholders can help at every stage in an infrastructure project’s progress, from initial concept right through to delivery.

Stakeholders can help shape the idea itself. They can help build political support for the project and make the case for funding. Stakeholders can contribute their thoughts and requirements into the design. This will help you get it right first time. If you take your stakeholders with you on the project’s journey, and provide meaningful involvement, from design through construction to operation, they can help you turn a good scheme into a great scheme. 

My top five tips:

So we know that stakeholder engagement is vital to a project’s success.  If you want to improve stakeholder engagement on your project but aren’t sure where to start, you may wish to consider my top five tips:

Identify your stakeholders: The first stage of stakeholder engagement is to carry out a thorough mapping exercise to identify and understand your stakeholders, and their views of the project.

Have the conversation: This is a major part of stakeholder engagement. Don’t be scared to talk to your stakeholders. Doing so will help gain their respect. Different stakeholder groups will often have different perspectives on a project and competing views, but the worst mistake you can make is to ignore them.  All interested groups have the right to be heard.

Engage early and often: It’s important to make contact with your stakeholders early on in the project. They need to be consulted at every stage, and have a real opportunity to influence the project. Stakeholders should be given the confidence that you are going to listen to, and take account of their views and requirements. I’d recommend going above and beyond what planning law requires. 

Aim to build advocacy among your stakeholders: You should engage with a wide range of stakeholder groups and aim to build advocacy for your project by carrying out top-quality, meaningful engagement. This will help make the case for your project, drive it forward and protect its reputation. But, be aware, building advocacy is a long-term process. It doesn’t happen overnight. And fundamentally, it’s all about building relationships, listening and working in partnership with your stakeholders to deliver results that work for everyone.

Consider the impact of social media: Social media can be an excellent tool for promoting your project. But it also means even the smallest of issues can be blown out of proportion. Make sure you are aware of your stakeholders, what they are saying on social media, and how it can play a part in communication and promotion.

By following these tips, we can all help to better engage with our stakeholders and build advocacy for our infrastructure projects. This will undoubtedly help to keep projects on track, and ensure we have a stronger economy, regardless of any uncertainty that might lie ahead.

Jo Field is the founder and director of JFG Communications, an agency specialising in communications and campaigns, gender diversity, stakeholder engagement and public affairs for the transport and infrastructure sectors.