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4 lessons from organising a major public consultation in the NGO sector

Last year, we supported WWF in the Public Consultation on their Social Policies and Environmental & Social Safeguards. A public consultation is a process that involves the public and/or external stakeholders in providing their views and feedback on a proposal (policy, strategy, or other). It is an effective way of improving draft policies and getting stakeholder/public support for the final documents. Although public consultations are far from new, it seems they are not yet common practice in the NGO sector, and for WWF it was the first time they undertook such an extensive, global consultation on policy documents.

There are many different ways to set up a consultation. In our partnership with WWF, we opted for a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods to ensure access to a broad audience and the collection of meaningful in-depth insights. For the qualitative part we organised stakeholder dialogues; 3-hour zoom sessions with key stakeholders, experts, peer organisations, and critics. These dialogues proved incredibly useful and we would say an essential building block to the success of any consultation. Here are some key recommendations on how to prepare for stakeholder dialogues in your own consultation:

1. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback

It can seem scary to ask for feedback from peers but especially also from critics. Yes, you are putting yourself out there and there’s always a risk of people ‘hijacking’ the conversation. But remember this: the fact that you are inviting people to give you feedback also shows confidence, humility, and a true desire to improve, which is something most people will appreciate. The gesture alone will already create a setting in which people will want to help by giving constructive feedback - instead of bringing you down. We are all here to improve after all.

2. Set a level playing field

The individuals you invite always bring in different backgrounds and perspectives. And often there is already some kind of relationship between you and the other stakeholders - either positive or sensitive. To make sure everyone feels comfortable speaking their truth it is essential to set a level playing field. A few ways to do this:

  • Always invite an independent facilitator to host the conversations. Yes, we were working with WWF. But, we had no interest in influencing the conversation, which meant we could guide the discussions in an impartial way.

  • Share clear objectives and rules of engagement at the start of the dialogue session. This way everyone knows what to expect and how to behave, and you can address unwanted behaviour when it arises. Our rules of engagement are summarised in a short ‘ways of working’ list - based on 15 years of experience in co-creation. And they always work. Read our book Collaborate or Die if you want to learn more.

  • Let everyone ‘check-in’ to the session by sharing how they feel and what their expectations are. This takes off a lot of pressure and makes sure everyone feels welcome and listened to.

We experienced a big difference in interactions with stakeholders during and prior to the consultation. Sensitive relationships often turned into meaningful conversations where stakeholders even offered their help going forward!

3. Take your time and plan ahead

You are asking people to review your materials and then discuss it with you in a session. This is a big - and voluntary - time investment on their part. Agendas are full and fill up quickly and to make sure everyone can attend and has enough time to prepare, you need to plan ahead. Try to send out invites 4-6 weeks prior to the dialogue sessions and ask for an RSVP so you know if they will attend. Once you have a good overview of who will be there make sure you send all materials out for review at least 2-3 weeks in advance. And even better: send some guiding questions along so they know what you’ll want to discuss.

4. Continue the conversation

A public consultation is great, but it’s only the start of something greater: structural and meaningful collaboration between stakeholders to work towards shared goals. Therefore, make sure it doesn’t end after having hosted the stakeholder dialogues. Actively reach out to thank participants, share top-level results of the consultation and update them on your progress. Making real impact really requires stronger stakeholder engagement and a consultation - or even a single dialogue session - is a great way to kickstart new collaborations for impact.

Do you have a topic, strategy, or plan that you would like to collect feedback on from the public or your key stakeholders? We’re here to help!


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