Stakeholder and public engagement: Simon says… focus on purpose not process

Stakeholder and public engagement: Simon says… focus on purpose not process

Stakeholder engagement. It’s a skill central to the success of any government or public sector communicator as well as the organisation itself.

And the benefits, if conducted and implemented correctly, are two-fold.

Firstly, inclusive stakeholder engagement delivers quality services and advice and develops effective guidelines.

Secondly, it can also encourage productive and trusting relationships, greater effectiveness in decision-making and a better understanding of, and response to, client needs.

Seems pretty straightforward, right? Well even with all those things considered, it’s still a skill that leaves many organisations scratching their heads and looking for a one fits all size approach.

Now there are many examples of successful engagement processes; however, Simon Burall, Director of Involve – UK’s leading authority on public participation, says highlighting these successes can actually do more harm than good.

Simon strongly believes that there isn’t a winning method when it comes to public engagement.

He insists organisations can’t just pick a method off the shelf to help engage the public because they’ve heard that it works well, or have seen it work well in the past. Focussing on the method upfront means you can’t and won’t achieve the outcome you want.

Involve’s formula for public engagement or as I like to call it the ‘Simon Says formula’ is described below.



Simon says the first step to designing an effective public engagement process is to develop a clear understanding of why you are engaging the public—the purpose.

Organisations must have a clear picture in their mind of the decision they are trying to take.

Think about what stakeholders can tell you, in words and actions, that no one else can… think about the bigger picture.

If understanding the exact purpose of the intended engagement is causing some difficulty, Simon advises organisations to think through the following factors:

“Governance: to develop more democratic legitimacy, increase public trust, or promote active democratic citizenship;

Social cohesion and social justice: to promote better community relations, increase social capital, or put power in the hands of communities and individuals;

Improved services: to create more efficient and effective services that meet real needs and reflect community values;

Capacity building and learning: to build individual and community confidence and skills;

Greater ownership: to support community buy-in to policies, services and service delivery; and/ or

Legal and regulatory structures: to meet statutory and regulatory obligations to consult and engage the public.”

Simon says the next step, is the context.


What is the context in which you will be engaging?

Organisations, businesses, groups, and even individuals need to think about the engagement activities that have already been done.

Think outside the box. Ask yourself, what is your relationship like with the outside world? What’s changed since the last time you actively asked the public a set of questions?


Simon says after context, comes people.

Organisations need to ask themselves – who do I need to engage? Who has the networks to help us engage across a wide range of groups and diversities? Who might be interested and affected by the decisions I’m taking?


Finally, and only at this point Simon says you can ask which method is best suited to these circumstances.

Choice will be dictated by your answers to the previous questions, as well as your budget and timing.

Simon says “it is only by going through this process that you stand a chance of understanding what outcome it is you want and therefore of achieving it.

How does your organisation manage stakeholder engagement? Let us know in the comments below.

Sam has a passion for internal communication which she has developed across eight years of experience in the public and private sectors. Sam gets out of bed everyday with the mission of making internal comms cool again.

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