Key considerations for best practice stakeholder engagement in environmental decision-making

A set of key considerations for best practice public and stakeholder engagement in environmental decision-making processes have been outlined in a report commissioned by Natural England. Stakeholder engagement is key for tackling environmental issues, helping us to make better decisions for more sustainable, equitable, and resilient futures.

Caitlin Hafferty, PhD Researcher at the Countryside and Community Research Institute (CCRI), worked with Natural England to deliver a range of outputs to contribute to the organisation’s evidence base on best practice in stakeholder engagement. This included a review of current UK and international research. The research contributed to a wider programme of work and was overseen by a steering group.

The output was an evidence report which reviewed existing research on public and stakeholder engagement, which is available to read and download for free online:

The report provides the evidence behind what engagement is and why it is important, what the benefits are, the potential risks of ‘poor’ engagement and how to mitigate them, how different ‘types’ of engagement can provide useful classifications for practitioners, and how practitioners can use theory (i.e., different ways of thinking and knowing) to inform best practice. This includes practical and ethical considerations of how we engage in an increasingly digitised world.

The report outlines how the available evidence can be used to inform the creation of an evidence-led, best practice engagement culture. It outlines a series of key tips for engagement, which are:

  1. Engagement is a process not just an activity.
  2. Take time to understand the local context in which engagement is being carried out.
  3. Engage stakeholders in dialogue as early as possible in the decision-making
  4. Recognise the importance of integrating local and scientific knowledge and
    implement this in practice.
  5. Manage power dynamics effectively, for example by using skilled facilitators who
    can help marginalised voices be heard and build trust in the process.
  6. Think about the length and time scale of the engagement process and how often it
    might be necessary to engage with participants.
  7. Recognise that different (digital/remote and in-person) tools and approaches for
    engagement will work differently in different situations.
  8. Engagement coordinators need to manage participants’ expectations of the
    engagement process.
  9. There are risks to engagement, some of which can be managed or mitigated.
  10. Frameworks for engagement need to be institutionalised within organisations as a
    culture of engagement.

One central message in the review is that ‘best practice’ engagement and its outcomes will vary between different situations. It is important to recognise that the quality of the process and outcomes will change depending on the purpose and objectives for engaging, as well as organisational cultures of engagement, institutional capacity, wider socio-economic and political contexts, and the characteristics of participants. Key themes from the evidence report were then summarised in an infographic pack, which is available via this link:

The report and infographic pack are suitable for anyone who is thinking about engaging, including practitioners, practice enablers, researchers, and policy makers who aim to involve members of the public and other key stakeholders in decision-making processes. While this focused on engagement in environmental decision-making, it is intended to be more broadly relevant to other areas of research and practice.

This blog post and other accompanying materials are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Natural England