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Stakeholder Engagement: Changes in practice and power in a digital world

Principle 1: Involve Stakeholders’, the first of the Social Value Principles, is the starting point and red thread running through any social value measurement and management practice. 

Social Value International defines Principle 1 as: 

‘Inform what gets measured and how this is measured and valued in an account of social value by involving stakeholders. Stakeholders are those people or organisations that experience change as a result of the activity and they will be best placed to describe the change. This principle means that stakeholders need to be identified and then involved in consultation throughout the analysis (ideally and if appropriate), in order that the value and the way that it is measured, is informed by those affected by, or who affect, the activity.’ 

Social Value Practice that does not involve stakeholders is missing the integral aspect that will ensure inclusion, representation of experience, engagement in decision making, increased accountability and ultimately greater accuracy of any social value account. Without including stakeholders there is also a great risk that the unequal power distributions that are causing the increasing levels of inequality we see across our whole globe are not recognised, or combatted.   

In our increasingly digital world, how stakeholder engagement is being undertaken has had to change. The power dynamics of the practice between practitioner and stakeholder groups is also affected. 

At the recent Social Value UK Members Exchange, June 2021, Helen Campbell and Penny Court, from Moore Kingston Smith, and SVI Level 3 Advanced Practitioners, facilitated a roundtable discussion looking at these themes of stakeholder engagement, digital participation and power dynamics. Practitioners brought some excellent contributions to the session, highlighted issues and shared good practice. In this blog Penny and Helen bring together some of the rich conversation and learnings from the session that may provoke further thought and perhaps spark some ideas for those of us working in the world of social value, and impact measurement and management. 

Changing and developing approaches 

As practitioners we have always been acutely aware of the importance of prioritising stakeholder voice. We are constantly asking ourselves questions such as “is everyone being heard?”“are we engaging with a representative sample?” and “are there some people who we have left behind?”. However, stakeholder engagement no longer looks as it did just 18 months ago. The pandemic has catapulted us into a digital era in a way that perhaps we weren’t quite ready for. That of course has meant that stakeholder engagement has had to change too, and quite suddenly. We haven’t been able to engage with stakeholders in a face-to-face environment, and whilst new digital tools and methods may bring advantages there are certainly some challenges as well. 

Continuing to involve those who are digitally excluded is perhaps the biggest concern and yet is not always well recognised. Social purpose organisations work to support the most vulnerable in our society, and it is often those who need the support most that just don’t have the tools or skills to participate online. Even if there is a way for people to access sessions digitally, if participating online is not something that stakeholders are familiar with, they may not feel comfortable speaking openly about their experiences.  

Another downside to engaging online is that you miss the natural cues of face-to-face engagement. It’s very difficult to read body language on camera and perhaps we have underestimated the helpfulness of it. Everyone can identify with the awkward stop-start nature of Zoom calls and the continual apologies from people starting sentences at the same time. The issue of not being able to read non-verbal cues is amplified when working with people who find verbal communication challenging. Differences in language, learning needs, physical ability, age and culture are some of the factors that can make communicating online challenging and even overwhelming for some.  

What’s good about digital? 

There are of course a number of advantages to digital engagement. A major bonus is that digital can reach a wider and more diverse sample group. Travel time and other costs are drastically reduced or even avoided altogether with online engagement and the process of gathering data is often a lot quicker. These provide obvious benefits to the organisation and practitioner facilitating engagement, but also may suit the stakeholders involved. And apart from the practical pros, some people actually feel more at ease in a digital environment, particularly if they are used to using technology in other areas of their life. There are some creative ways that practitioners have used to engage with stakeholders such as Whatsapp groups, voice-recordings and emojis. And of course, there are surveys and the good old fashioned telephone call. There is also the added benefit of recording and storing data through digital means. Notwithstanding the risks of safe storage or challenges of data ownership, this can offer opportunities for sharing data and results with stakeholders directly and more quickly and easily.   

There are many digital options available, but before pushing forwards with our choice we need to ask how we can best support stakeholders in a way that respects their needs and circumstances. If we don’t operate in the best interests of the stakeholders, we risk making the process uncomfortable for people and in the end we won’t capture a reliable view of change. Our data will be compromised which could ultimately call into question the integrity and results of an analysis. It may sound obvious but asking stakeholders how they would like to engage may lead to an idea for a tool that will work best for everyone, and it may even be something you might never have thought of. 

Who’s in control here? 

On a more abstract, but equally as important level, inequality and power should be central to our ongoing concerns about impact measurement practice. If the ultimate aim of measuring and managing social value is to reduce inequality and environmental degradation, we need to think about the power dynamics that are causing these issues in the first place, about our role in the process, and how these power dynamics play out throughout the practice we are undertaking. There are central questions to consider such as “how can we avoid reinforcing existing power asymmetries, rather than addressing them?”“how can we guard against causing harm through the impact measurement process?” and “how can we be mindful of our own biases and prejudices as practitioners, reduce their influence on our work, and be transparent about their presence?”. These are not straightforward questions to answer, and need to be considered in each analysis context.  Whilst we cannot answer these in full in this blog, we can reflect on how the digital environment may impact on the power dynamics between practitioners and stakeholders.  

Simply being an unknown outsider can immediately put people on edge or bring about assumptions and biases in both parties. These issues are always a risk when it comes to engagement but are potentially exacerbated in a digital setting. Without the human connection and space to build rapport, there is more opportunity for barriers to form. To counteract this risk, some practitioners take themselves out of the direct interaction with stakeholders and train staff or even other stakeholders to collect data. Recently in the world of impact measurement and evaluation more generally, co-creation is gaining popularity which puts stakeholders right at the centre of the entire analysis design and execution. These practices are an excellent way to overcome some of those power asymmetries and there are multiple other benefits, but there is the question of buy-in and training which can be demanding for everyone involved. 

Another huge topic to unpack is data ownership and privacy. If we are collecting information online, who owns this data and how can we make sure it’s protected? Many online sessions these days are recorded. Digital engagement brings with it the additional responsibility to protect data and stakeholders’ privacy, and real questions about consent to how data is used and shared.  

What next? 

There is a lot to consider. The purpose of these reflections is certainly not to leave you feeling overwhelmed but rather to spark some thinking within your own practice. Catherine Manning, Operations Director of Social Value UK offered a pertinent comment during the session at the Exchange –“As impact practitioners we should continually be self-reflecting”. We may not have all the answers and the reality is that sometimes approaches just don’t work, or the demands of what is practical override what we would like to do in an ideal world. The important thing is to keep our stakeholders’ needs front and centre and let this inform what we do and how we do it. Let’s also be open about sharing our successes and failures as we learn and try new things. As we move beyond the pandemic we might be thinking about whether to go back to old practices or to perhaps adopt a more blended approach. Ultimately, it’s about evolving and finding better ways of doing things that will take us forward in our quest to measure and account for social value, and inform better decisions to create as much value as we can in the lives of the stakeholders that we affect. 

Find out more about Moore Kingston Smiths work on Impact Measurement HERE 

Join Social Value UK and participate in work developing Social Value Practice through the membership HERE 

Gain your own Social Value Practitioner status through the Practitioner Pathway HERE 

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