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For Peat’s Sake: The Benefits of Effective Stakeholder Engagement

For Peats Sake LogoBy Marla J. Stelk, Policy Analyst, ASWM

There are just some things in life that you either like or don’t like, with the few exceptions of course for folks who just don’t seem to have an opinion. Like mayonnaise for instance – you either like it or you don’t – there are very few individuals who are neutral on the matter. And the same can often be said for the process of stakeholder engagement. Either you enjoy the process or you don’t. In my experience, most folks who don’t like it are those who think it’s mayo012216too time consuming and are generally uncomfortable working with the public and the inherent emotions that go along with conducting what in many circumstances feels like a social science experiment. There is often a line drawn between what is considered “hard science” and “soft science” – and the latter is often viewed as unrelated to those who have dedicated their lives to “hard science.” But the times they are a changin’ – and although the process of stakeholder engagement is considered a “soft science” and can be awkward and cumbersome to some, the benefits of taking the time to develop and implement an opportunity for stakeholder engagement has been shown to hold significant long term benefits.

Federal policy has recognized the importance of public participation for many decades. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), signed into law by President Richard Nixon on January 1, 1970, was one of the first federal policies that required federal agencies to balance environmental concerns along with social and economic concerns, and part of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process requires solicitation of input from organizations and individuals that could potentially be impacted by federal agency decisions and actions. Many states and local governments also have their own environmental review process (aka “mini NEPA”). For example, the Wisconsin Environmental Policy Act (WEPA) requires public hearings, highlighting the importance of stakeholder engagement to its process.

However, the process for engaging stakeholders can differ substantially from one agency (local, state or federal) to another and the various methods of stakeholder engagement have mixed results. Simply holding a public hearing is often ineffective for gaining important public “buy-in” to a proposal. The Society of Ecological Restoration supports this ecological012216in their Guidelines for Developing and Managing Ecological Restoration Projects, saying, “Public agencies should consider incentives for the restoration team to incorporate local residents and other stakeholders in all phases of project work. By doing so, the public will develop a feeling of ownership, and participants may assume a stewardship role for the completed project.” Unless stakeholders have a role to play in the development of a proposal, important opportunities are also often missed to capitalize on local knowledge and, conversely, to educate the public. However, major decisions that are made through an effective stakeholder engagement process often enjoy broader support politically and financially, and face far fewer legal challenges.

One of the most cited articles regarding effective stakeholder engagement was written by Sherrie R. Arnstein in 1969, titled “A Ladder of Citizen Participation”. The primary point that she makes is that there are “significant gradations of citizen participation.” The rungs of the ladder (which are a simplification for the purposes of her argument) are as follows:

ladderpartnershipNow not every decision, project or policy proposal will require the same level of public participation, but the higher you go on the ladder the better chances you have of gaining significant public involvement, support and sense of ownership for your proposal. And when you provide more substantive stakeholder engagement opportunities, you increase your chances of giving full consideration to important social, environmental and economic trade-offs inherent in your decisions. Having a comprehensive understanding of critical trade-offs before making a decision can save your agency time and money by reducing your chances of having to scratch a plan and start all over again due to unexpected impacts, pitfalls and barriers.

spider012216The fact is we live in an interconnected world – so every decision we make impacts the social, economic and environmental arenas of modern civilization in various degrees. A recent article in Environmental Health News talked about how 2015 was the year that environmental and climate issues left their silos. Like a big spider web, we are discovering that environmental degradation and climate change can have negative impacts not just on the thread they directly touch, (i.e. the environment) but they can cause a ripple effect throughout the entire web, resulting in negative human health impacts, economic instability and political strife across the world. On a smaller scale, every resource management decision we make can have impacts outside of the immediate project boundaries in ways we cannot even begin to imagine unless we include those who could be significantly impacted in the planning process.

There have been many great articles and books published that explain the benefits of public participation and how to develop an effective stakeholder engagement process, and I have included links to a few of them below. The list is by no means exhaustive. There are also many tools to assist in communicating scientific language and data to the general public, particularly spatial GIS models, but it may also be wise to consider hiring a professional facilitator if your agency lacks facilitation expertise.  So for Peat’s Sake, although the stakeholder engagement process may take some extra time and require some additional expense at the start of your project, those initial expenses are typically far outweighed by the benefits of sustained social, political and financial support for current and future projects.

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