Stakeholder engagement as the key to success of infrastructural projects has been saved
Stakeholder engagement as the key to success of infrastructural projects
Resilience, Crisis & Reputation
Our society is forced to deal with a rising number of momentous changes. Major urgent and long-term programmes such as climate adaptation, developing the circular economy and the energy transition are highly demanding for the public and private sectors and, in turn, this makes the associated infrastructure projects increasingly complex and extensive. Also, there is little room for failure. These major transitions set ambitious targets and integrality is essential in meeting those targets. Because simply ‘managing the process’ is a far cry from solving such issues. Stakeholder engagement is critical to the success of infrastructural and major projects, argue Jorien Douma (Director Team Infrastructure and Major Projects) and Frédérique Demenint (Partner Team Resilience, Crisis & Reputation).
The Netherlands faces major challenges, the healthcare and energy transition, the housing market and moving towards a more sustainable agriculture chief among them. Transitions are rapidly succeeding each other in an increasingly complex playing field. Strikingly, with stakeholders themselves now having the resources to put their issues on the agenda, public commissioning parties or developers are no longer the parties setting the agenda and driving the process. In short, stakeholders are gaining greater influence; even a single individual without any formal power can have a huge impact on major projects whose costs run into the billions.
Looking at the role of stakeholders requires a new line of thought, Jorien Douma and Frédérique Demenint say. It’s why they rather speak of stakeholder engagement than stakeholder management. “It’s impossible to manage stakeholders and above all they do not want to be managed”, says Douma. She has 15 years of experience with projects in the living environment, leading communication and (public-private) cooperation. “Besides, the term stakeholder management has an air of reactiveness, as if you have to keep stakeholders reined in,” Demenint adds. In situations where stakeholder support for strategic decision-making is under pressure, Demenint has been involved in protecting and monitoring this support for 25 years now. Douma and Demenint argue that stakeholder engagement is about actively involving everyone who has an interest in, is affected by - or can influence - the achievement of the objectives of an infrastructural or major project. Accordingly, this means that stakeholder input is actually heard and applied. They all too often find stakeholder engagement to still be seen as a sideshow. Demenint: “There is no strategic priority, even when stakeholder engagement is a critical prerequisite for the success of infrastructural and major projects. It’s not something to be done on the side, it’s the main task.”
Stakeholder engagement: a retardant?
“Quite often major infrastructural projects get bogged down in substantial delays and huge cost overruns and more often than not this is linked to a disconnect with stakeholder and their issues,” says Demenint. She believes that the way stakeholder management is looked at nowadays, is still very old fashioned. “Stakeholder management is usually approached in a reactive manner and is incident-driven. When starting and implementing a project, a coordinated understanding of direct and indirect stakeholders and their agendas before a program is initiated is lacking.” Demenint says this leads to issues delaying the process, such as reduced support, an increase of legal procedures, rising project costs, pressure on the organisation carrying out the process and loss of credibility for project initiators Demenint: “The way to avoid all this is by making the stakeholder groups and their agendas a strategic priority and structurally by embedding them in the approach.”
Good examples abound. Douma mentions the North-South subway line. “For a long time things didn’t go well, until the project team adopted a completely new environmental approach and communication strategy. The first newspaper ad carried the headline: “Allow us to introduce ourselves.” The project started putting people, instead of technology, centre stage. . It was one of the main reasons why the project started moving forward again and eventually it became a success.” The SAA (Schiphol Amsterdam Almere) project - Rijkswaterstaat’s biggest road project, including the largest aqueduct under the river Vecht - is another remarkable example. Two out of the programme’s five projects were completed on time, two even earlier than expected, while the last one is still ongoing. Douma attributes its success to the emphasis on action and interaction between people and organisations. “This is about building trust together and about adaptive capability. All layers and levels of the programme organisation and the commissioning parties were involved in providing content for compelling stories. This resulted in a broad and diverse picture of what was really going on within the programme and within the collaborative relationships with other parties.”
Stakeholders and tooling
Getting all actors in major projects to properly collaborate requires a structured, planned, long-term approach based on data and customised communication, Demenint and Douma argue. Right now, data and technology are the big ‘blind spots’ in this process, says Demenint. “Although most program managers have a stakeholder map available that tell you how the key players relate to the objectives, it still leaves you in the dark about how those different groups interact, which themes and efforts actually produce results, and whether you are moving in the right direction. Deloitte has the technological know-how and tooling to not only map that very complex and dynamic field, but also to monitor the impact of what you are doing.” And according to Douma and Demenint this is exactly where you can score the winning point quicker: when you know which efforts are effective and where to intervene when things start going wrong. Tooling and technology enable you to more quickly map and understand an increasingly intricate stakeholder landscape. It also means prioritising your stakeholders’ issues and interests, because you can’t make everyone happy at the same time. Demenint: “This information allows you to create a more efficient approach, from communications, your storylines and nudges, to programmes and process information.”
In doing so, you should take care not to ignore the trend of large groups in the outside world nowadays determining the talking points for government, companies and NGOs, Demenint argues. “Waiting for them to set the agenda for you would already set you well back. Inviting everyone to join in to set the agenda and identify the obstacles early on is much smarter, more efficient and more valuable.” Investing up front, says Demenint, is also an insurance policy you can call on when things threaten to go south during a project. “Many things can go wrong in major projects; materially or financially, or due to a poor time schedule or mismanagement. If that happens and you haven’t already secured the support of your stakeholders, you’re far too late.”
Stakeholder engagement must be strategic, firm and well-founded, Demenint and Douma stress. “It should be one of the core issues of a management board, discussed at the tables where decisions are made,” says Douma. “Assigning stakeholder engagement to someone with the appropriate mandate and decision-making powers as well as tooling, increases the chances of a project’s success.” What’s more, that strategic priority is an indication of your project’s long-term value, Demenint adds. “Our focus on projects makes it seem as if we are done after a project is over. But when a project is realised and new challenges appear on the horizon you continue to need the support of all those stakeholders. So a key lesson is that we are the owners of the long-term impact of all stakeholders. This realisation proves the great importance of investing in all those relationships, a task for which top management should be responsible.”