Anyone who undertakes ‘stakeholder management’ seriously will have come to realise that there are ALWAYS more stakeholders than you thought.
This applies throughout society and not just in the public sector. If a commercial company needs to think in terms of its suppliers, its customers, its employees, its shareholders, and its community contacts, then for the providers of public services, the list seems endless.
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The evolution of community stakeholders
Long before the world went digital, local community stakeholders would organically create groups and associations of like-minded people to pursue their hobbies or respond to their needs.
Before the advent of universal education, thousands of charities and other self-help organisations emerged to give children some schooling. The same with health. Indeed, much of the impetus for the growth of Trades Unions in the twentieth century originated in this way.
Although a welfare state has changed the nature of the requirement, the desire of people to come together – whether to help manage their allotments or to raise money for the annual carnival - has changed little.
Or has it?
In 2000, the American researcher, Robert Putnam wrote a world best-selling book called Bowling Alone. In it, he charted the decline in membership of many civic society groups in the USA and suggested that the bonds that created ‘social capital’ were weakening.
It prompted a debate everywhere with many arguing that the impact of the internet was, in fact, making it easier not harder to link up and pursue common interests with others.
Here in the UK, there is little conclusive evidence either way and anyone who really wants to understand the dynamics of civic society in an area simply has to appreciate the immense complexity and scale of the interconnecting mechanisms that operate within a local community.
Looking beyond the employment profile of an area – its biggest employers and the businesses based around them - the population organises itself around things that matter to them.
The UK's National Council Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) categorises its 165,000 members into 16 sub-groups of which the largest is ‘social services’ with over 31,000 groups. In reality, the numbers are far greater than this; not everyone belongs to the NCVO!
Many small and local organisations are sustained by the fundraising efforts of local stakeholder groups. And these are not advocacy-based campaigning bodies, but simply ordinary people volunteering and making a common cause.
Yet woe betides any move to reduce funding or otherwise hamper their work. Every one of them counts themselves as a stakeholder with a right to be heard when the issue warrants it.
The complexity of local organisations and community stakeholders
The truth is that every one of the UK’s Parliamentary constituencies probably has between 500 and 1,000 such organisations, excluding businesses.
Anyone who thinks relationships with such diverse bodies can be managed without the use of effective systems and tools has limited experience with the inherent complexities!
Consider, for example:
- In an average-sized large town (100,000 people) you might expect to have 150-200 faith groups ranging from the classic Church of England to Mosques and a Sikh Gurdwara;
- Such a population probably has 250-400 sporting clubs or recreational associations, many with hundreds of members. It might support a vibrant cultural scene with over 50 choirs, 20 drama or theatrical groups and dozens of ‘reading groups’;
- In the field of health, there are very large numbers of condition-specific support groups, many with local branches and enjoying charitable status. Some will be part of high-profile national organisations, such as about cancers or heart disease, and running very political campaigns. Others will have begun as self-help awareness-raising initiatives for little-known diseases or conditions;
- The NHS has to be on good terms with all these, but in areas such as mental health and age-related services, social care assumes massive importance, particularly for top-tier Councils. They also, therefore, have to build and maintain excellent relationships with them;
- For business, every local authority deals with influential chambers of commerce, training consortia, sector-specific campaigners, and transport or planning interest groups. Then there is the growing range of citizen activist groups focused on environmental, energy or net-zero-related causes.
It is tempting to imagine that public bodies need not be over-involved with this vast ecology of community stakeholders and that they can safely focus their relations on a small number of umbrella organisations such as a CVS (Community & Voluntary Services), an Interfaith Forum or Healthwatch.
In practice, however, all these stakeholder organisations will relate to one or more Council services and feel entitled to be consulted were it to change and their interests be affected.
Managing community stakeholders effectively
Stakeholder management is so much more than just about knowing who these bodies are; it needs to track their aims and often-changing priorities.
What is the relationship with elected members? Or the local Members of Parliament? Are they democratically run with an established constitution? Or are they the product of a single inspirational campaigner or activist? Are they happy with Council services? Or are they critical? Is this a group that will hand you bouquets? Or the kind that may threaten you with a judicial review?
In summary, the NHS, the Police, Fire & Rescue Services, School Academy Groups, and many other public service providers all have some level of relationship with local communities and need to understand the dynamics of each area’s situation.
Most of all, however, it is local authorities which oversee a locality and which deliver the hundreds of different services upon which local people depend.
Effective monitoring and management of such a diverse and complex environment of community stakeholders need highly-functional tools and the ability to use them.
Without such investment, public bodies will struggle to secure the necessary public and stakeholder support to meet the challenges of the coming years.
Written by Rhion Jones
Rhion Jones was the Founder Director of the Consultation Institute and is an acknowledged authority on all aspects of public and stakeholder engagement and consultation. He advises Tractivity and will be contributing expert analysis and commentaries on current issues.
Rhion now publishes thought leadership articles regularly as the ConsultationGuru.