HomeLong-Term Funding / Engaging Stakeholders

Engaging Stakeholders


Stakeholders are the people who are actively involved with the work of the project or have something to either gain or lose as a result of the project. The stakeholders for a water, wastewater or stormwater system could include customers, elected leaders, management, project team, contractors and suppliers, or local, state and federal governmental entities. Stakeholder engagement consists of the acts of communicating with the stakeholders. Good communication is the key to success in everything a system is trying to accomplish. Anthony Robbins (self-help author and success coach) said “to effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.”

Tailoring your communication to the listening of your audience is the key to effective communication. It is very important to understand that others may perceive the world differently than you do; that their understanding of what is happening may be different from yours; and, most importantly, that what is meaningful and important to them may be very different from what is meaningful and important to you. Communication based on this principle establishes a partnership between the speaker and the listener.

If it can be said that communication is the key to success, then it can also be said that lack of communication is often the reason for lack of success. In the case of Asset Management, the real key to success is the involvement and enrollment of everyone who has a stake in the process, be it the Mayor, the meter reader, or the customer at the farthest end of the line. And the key to this “buy-in” is effective communication.

Internal communications are communications up and down the chain of command within your organization and across different departments within the system. Internal communication is often direct and informal and usually contains very specific and detailed information. However, communication with governing bodies may take on the character of external communication since these people are usually not concerned with the details of day-to-day operations. The City Council will be interested in the fact that you are saving money by implementing a preventative maintenance plan. The operator needs to know the specific details of the plan such as the actual schedule for changing the oil in a pump. Thus, they are being given different levels of information about the same program. This is not just a difference in the amount of information that is being given, but also a difference in the kind of information.

Clearly communicating the Level of Service benefits for a new project and using a Triple Bottom Line Analysis to evaluate all of the costs and benefits for a project are important for a system to be confident they are making the best choice for their customers and community.

External communications are communications with the entire community served by the system. These communications will be usually more general in nature and often take on the character of public relations or advertising, which is not meant to convey a negative connotation. Most of the community stakeholders are not well versed in the inner workings of the system and will need to have important ideas and facts conveyed in terms that are meaningful to them. It is not important for your customers to understand the specifications for new sewer lines. It is important for them to understand the need for the lines, the impact of the project on their rates and how the installation will affect them.

Community engagement and support should be part of any project beginning in the planning and design phases. The community needs to understand what will change and then what to expect from the new project in the future. For green infrastructure, communicating when and how the infrastructure will be maintained reduces the possibility for complaints after the project is in service. Local partnerships can help overcome public resistance. Education and outreach can include signage and flyers or other printed materials that informs the community about how the facilities are functioning and the multiple benefits they bring; to scale images of the what the final product will look like are great ways to reach out to the community; inviting the community to be involved (and possibly offering donuts) is also a useful outreach tool.

What is important to understand about the distinction between these two types of communication is that not only will you want to communicate different kinds of information externally than you communicate internally, but you may want to use different methods of communication. For instance, you may publish a brochure to communicate with your customers but use a memo or meeting to communicate with your operators. This is not to say that you might not use the same methods for both audiences, but that it is important to consider not just the information you want to communicate, but also what might be the most effective way to communicate it.

Green infrastructure and gray infrastructure need to be discussed on equal footing. Oftentimes, gray infrastructure project costs only look at capital costs, while green infrastructure project cost discussions include capital costs and maintenance costs. The reality is that all infrastructure, green and gray, will have capital costs, operations costs, maintenance costs, repair costs, and replacement costs. The full life cycle analysis should be used regardless of what type of infrastructure is being considered. It is also important to realize that most projects include contingencies. Very few projects require no changes to the design once construction starts. However better planning upfront, as well as involving operations and maintenance staff in the design and planning phases, can reduce the needs for these change orders.

Bring your case to your stakeholders – Jim Smith, Director, Infrastructure Planning, Louisville Water Company, Louisville, KY