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When and how should we involve people?

The point has already been made that how you engage with people will depend on what you are trying to achieve (e.g. are you dealing with a decision-making process, or interested in developing services and facilities, or getting people involved in events and activities?).

It is important that the most appropriate level of engagement is undertaken to match the intended objectives. For example, consultation is an appropriate form of engagement to use when there is a realistic expectation that the public’s suggestions will be taken into account and at least some of the preferences expressed can be delivered. Too often consultation raises expectations and fails to deliver. This is not fair on the public or the forest manager. Defining why you want to engage people should lead the forest manager to identify the best engagement approach.

Figure 1 illustrates examples of different types of forestry activities and where engagement might take place. Whatever form the engagement takes, some flexibility will be required, as people will often take the opportunity to raise concerns that are not seen as immediately relevant. For example, people might focus on the problem of dog mess on paths or timber lorries passing the local school during a process that is focused on informing people about operational plans. Capture these concerns and identify a way of responding to them in future – this will help build relationships.

Figure 1 - Public engagement in different areas of forest and woodland planning, operations and activities

Key principles to guide decisions about when and how to engage people
Principles to bear in mind when working through who should be engaged and when are:

  • Discuss, make clear and agree the objectives for public engagement and make sure everyone understands who to involve and when.
  • Engage with individuals and communities as early as possible to ensure you build support rather than resentment or conflict. Early communication is essential in identifying who might be involved and in what capacity.
  • Design the ‘when’, ‘who’ and ‘how’ of public engagement to suit the context of your process.
  • Ensure the time, location, materials and delivery methods are suitable for the greatest engagement and understanding for the group(s) you are involving.
  • Don’t be afraid to try new techniques and methods to fit the particular needs of the situation and local population.
  • Communicate and listen. It will help to clarify the key people, groups and communities that you need to speak to.
  • Avoid consultation and engagement overload!
  • Set realistic and achievable goals and don’t over-reach – work to the resources you have.
  • Don’t raise expectations. Consult on what you can deliver and make it clear what the limitations are.

Methods to engage different groups of people
We have a pretty good idea of which of the methods of engagement are likely to work better for different kinds of people. Some general pointers include:

  • Use verbal rather than written methods if working with people who use English or Welsh as a second or third language, or who may not have a high degree of literacy.
  • Use less formal methods with people who are not used to being consulted or who might be wary of formal ‘government’ processes.
  • When dealing with non-experts, avoid using complex and abstract ideas. A field visit is more effective than a photograph. A photograph is more effective than a map. Stock-maps or other technical materials may be hard to understand and this creates a barrier to engagement.
  • Organise ‘safe spaces’ for discussion – consider the location, the type of venue, context and atmosphere.
  • Think about using theatre, music and creative methods for exploring ideas and reminiscences with younger and older people.
  • Hold a number of meetings at different, easy-to-reach venues and at different times to give as many people as possible the chance to take part. Try to find ‘neutral’ venues.
  • Don’t assume that everyone has access to the internet and e-mail. If you want to use IT to reach younger people, be creative.
  • Where possible use meetings to consult people on more than one issue rather than going to the same group a number of different times for similar issues.

Using different forms of engagement at different stages in a process
Do not forget that there are different types of engagement. There is no reason for the style and level of engagement to be the same throughout a specific process, activity or project. Not all stakeholders need to be involved in the same way all the time. For example, in the case of designing a new urban woodland, it may be appropriate for the early design stages to use consultation as a way to engage many people in developing proposals, but for the detailed design stage to use involvement to engage a smaller number of stakeholders. 

Break down a process by thinking about a beginning, middle and end. One way of portraying this is as a ‘wheel of inclusion’, with different forms of engagement used at different stages (Figure 2). The image of a wheel reminds us that engagement processes can persist over time, and endings often lead on to new beginnings:

  • Beginning – scope issues, identify stakeholders, define objectives, make plans.
  • Middle – discuss design options, make decisions, implement actions.
  • End – consider how things will carry on into the future, agree plans for future involvement, bring an event to closure, formally hand ownership or responsibilities to particular parties, celebrate achievements, evaluate processes and results.

Figure 2 - The wheel of engagement

Stakeholders, issues and their resolution
What is really important is defining the most crucial stakeholders and the issues they are likely to be concerned with.  Finding ways of understanding issues and accommodating stakeholder interests and perspectives is often crucial to the success of woodland projects. The forest or woodland manager needs to distinguish the issues relevant to the most important stakeholders, decide which of these relate to the design of the engagement process, and which of these can be tackled as part of the woodland management. Difficult issues may require the help of external facilitators who can act as independent arbiters. Some issues may need to be tackled by other agencies rather than foresters.

Consensus building is an important form of stakeholder negotiation that aims to build dialogue between stakeholders so that issues can be discussed and ways forward agreed. Looking for consensus among stakeholders about the issues linked to woodland management involves finding mutual gains for all parties (i.e. win–win situations) with the minimum of compromise and trade-off. Figure 3 illustrates the difference between consensus and compromise and Box 1 provides some examples.

Figure 3 - Negotiating consensus and compromise

Box 1 - Consensus and compromise in stakeholder negotiation and woodland management

The public have a particularly important role to play in planning for sustainability and evaluating impact. Continued support, care and respect for individuals, community groups and organisations can build confidence and the potential for real involvement and engagement over a number of years, rather than just for a single initiative. The care offered by forest managers to all groups during and after any initiatives will dictate how likely the groups are to take part in future initiatives, or become regular forest visitors or service users. This is particularly true in the case of newly engaged and harder to reach minority groups.

Monitoring and evaluation – start, middle and end
Monitoring is about recording and measuring events, activities and changes to people and places brought about as a result of an action or intervention. Evaluation should identify and assess the impacts of those changes and assess the strengths and weaknesses of an overall process, or any of the steps along the way. The reason for doing this is to learn lessons from the process and improve the approaches and techniques used, and to inform colleagues.

Effective monitoring and evaluation should be planned as part of the process from the beginning. Mechanisms – such as attendance forms, feedback forms or evaluation discussions – should help you to make improvements to the process as you carry it through. This is especially useful when first engaging difficult-to-reach or newly contacted people in densely populated urban areas and can help you figure out what is not working and why.

Monitoring and evaluation at event and overall process level is concerned with understanding:

  • achievements and impacts;
  • who was included, and who was missed out or excluded and why this happened;
  • people’s perceptions about how well they were included and how effective it was;
  • if the public’s views and preferences expressed were actually acted upon, and if not, why not;
  • what was learnt and who shared what was learnt;
  • the strengths and weaknesses of the process – and what to do differently next time.