How to set up your project to facilitate engagementCategory: PlanningName: Penny Wilson, Policy Officer
“Although bottom-up engagement is key, top-down Government support is equally important”
The way a project is set up, project governance, can help establish good relationships from the beginning. The Celtic Seas Partnership Project consisted of five partners from the UK, France and Ireland. They were a mix of non-governmental organisations, academic institutions and a local authority.
The project had a Steering Group made up of subset of the full project team. It consisted of the Project Manager, Project Officer and Policy Officer in addition to a lead representative from each of the partner organisations. The steering group met regularly in addition to full project team meetings. The steering group dealt with the governance of the project, where as the project team dealt with the day to day activities of the project.
To complement the steering group we invited industry, academic and other experts to be part of an Expert Advisory Group which met twice a year and an Observer Board consisting of government representatives, the European Commission and OSPAR (a regional coordination institution). The purpose of the Expert Advisory Group and Observer Board was to provide advice to the project on its upcoming activities, processes and products and highlight activities and products which might be relevant and helpful to the organisations when available.
It might sound a bit over the top having all these different groups. However the benefits were: that key stakeholders were involved from the very start, they had a clear role and remit, provided valuable expertise whilst planning and helped created a sense of group ownership of the project. Mixing these more formal forms of engagement with our other activities is certainly a ‘top tip’.
Step by Step
- Identify key organisations/people who need to be involved in decision-making versus providing advice to the project. Invite relevant people to join respective groups.
- Set clear terms of reference for the groups. What is their role, what do members do, how often will they meet and what kind of influence will they have over project activities?
- Stick to regular meetings and take good minutes and follow up on actions.
Use formal groups (e.g. observer board, expert advisory group) as part of your project design. Not only do people feel more included and therefore willing to contribute, but they can also end up being champions for your work in their own organisations.
Think carefully about who to invite to your groups. Do you need specific expertise? broad cross-sector representation? High profile or celebrity advocates? Representatives from sectors who are usually difficult to engage with? Whomever you invite, make sure they are not too busy to attend meetings and make an active contribution. See the top tips on our Observer Board page.
Be adaptable. Part way through the project, the issues being discussed in the Steering Group were very similar to the full project team so we combined the meetings. Separate Steering Group meetings were reinstated when it was felt that the Steering Group was a useful forum in which to discuss project issues that were related to governance, such as delays in reporting and the risk register.
It took about six months to establish the Expert Advisory Group and the Observer Board. The groups met two to four times a year with each meeting taking about half a day (excluding travelling). The project steering group and full team met once a quarter, either by teleconference or in person.
It is important to include the right people in the right groups but aim to keep the overall size small. Smaller groups are easier to facilitate and can make decisions quickly. The Observer Group and Expert Advisory Group had about 10 people each.
In order to have regular meetings with large groups, you need to think about the cost (in terms of time and money) of getting people together. We regularly used teleconference and video conference facilities but made sure to meet face to face where possible. Staff time is required to prepare documents for the meetings, make arrangements, chair and distribute minutes. The Partnership covered the costs of travel and the meeting rooms / tea / coffee / lunch where appropriate however no one was paid to be part of the groups.