The importance of effective stakeholder and community engagement in the planning and implementation of projects necessitates an understanding of dealing with host communities and key stakeholders, particularly those who represent a perceived threat to your project. This is often a dilemma for project managers and failure to get it right can be costly in terms of public controversy, delayed or abandoned projects – as well as running the risk of damaged careers, reputations and relationships.

Not involving communities in project development can have serious long-term negative impacts on a community’s economic, environmental and social outcomes. Establishing dialogue and building strong and genuine relationships with local communities and other stakeholders is now recognised as a vitally important part of any project. From large-scale resource projects and transport infrastructure to the development of local community facilities, stakeholders matter!

Recent high-profile projects in gas, energy, electricity, water, wind, waste and transport have all encountered public controversy, outrage and media attention due to perceived shortcomings in participatory design and the standard of public consultation – with some organisations even hiring security firms to facilitate community engagement in rural Ireland.

Modern project management

In order to bring about the societal acceptance and the licence to operate necessary for implementation of such critical infrastructure in energy, transport and natural resources that is required to sustain society and future generations, it is clear that engineers and project managers must take time out at this stage to master the art of stakeholder engagement. There is a strong case for making such communication training a part of undergraduate programmes.

The Project Management Institute’s tenth ‘Knowledge Area’ acknowledges the importance of stakeholder engagement. Just as safety and environmental risks have gained paramount importance, the risks associated with affecting local communities are too great to be ignored and project proponents must meet a range of stakeholder engagement standards in order to avoid or mitigate risk. Short- and long-term social and community impacts must be carefully considered.

Conflict assessments are just as important today in projects as safety, environmental and economic assessments. The traditional view of project management (which consists of the ‘iron triangle ‘ of cost, scope and time, where project managers were actively incentivised to deliver against these criteria alone) has changed. Today, there is a requirement for a fourth pillar: people. The traditional low priority given by engineers in the past to techniques relating to communication and public engagement has to be reversed if vital project outcomes are to have any chance.

Engineers, in particular, need to hone their skills in environmental and project conflict avoidance and resolution techniques – with an increasing demand for environmental and community mediation and related alternative dispute resolution tools at various stages along project delivery roadmaps, from concept to implementation.

Community expectations

Today, more informed and sophisticated communities demand transparent and effective processes that enable community involvement in decision-making. Increasingly, public input and participation is expected and, in most cases, demanded at the earliest stages of a project’s design. Host communities need to understand the full implications of a project at concept stage, so that there is opportunity for concerns to be raised and addressed.

Planning and design processes are more likely to be aligned with community views if these views are directly reflected in concept development, and feedback is provided on how the input influenced the decision. Such early engagement can assist in establishing strong relationships that can continue throughout the implementation and operational stages of projects. Regular engagement at each stage of a project is more likely to reveal important issues and provide valuable feedback as a project develops.

The public also has legitimate expectations from consultation. Ireland finally ratified the Aarhus Convention in 2012 and recent Aarhus draft recommendations provide for “the most comprehensive, broad, active and accessible participation possible”. The International Association for Public Participation (, in its Core Values, asserts: “The public should have a say in decisions that affect their lives.”

Genuine public consultation has been a legal requirement in the UK since the Gunning Principles were established for over three decades now in R v Brent Borough Council [1985]. These minimum consultation principles are:

1. Consultation must take place when the proposal is still at a formative stage;

2. Sufficient reasons must be put forward for the proposal to allow for intelligent consideration and response;

3. Adequate time must be given for consideration and response; and

4. The product of consultation must be conscientiously taken into account.

Building a credibility bank

A critical factor is to make sure the process is genuine. Ensure people understand what is up for negotiation and how their input will be taken into consideration in the decision-making process. Ineffective consultations are considered to be cosmetic consultations that are carried out due to obligation or show and are not true participatory decision-making. Taking predetermined decisions or outcomes to a community under the guise of ‘consultation’ inevitably leads to erosion of goodwill.

Communities in Ireland have recently been very critical of engagement on national projects that some described as ‘tokenism’, ‘done deal ‘or ‘tick box’ exercises. Others had stronger descriptions. There have been many examples of such consultations where there appeared to be unwritten policy, even in public organisations, to keep communities ‘in the dark’. Indeed, there are still strains of this outmoded attitude lurking around: it was never going to be easy to teach old dogs new tricks. Communities frame their attitude to projects, in many cases, from bitter experience of previous flawed consultations.

It is all about trust and building trusting and credible long-term relationships with communities and stakeholders, both internal and external. We know that trust, once lost, is very difficult to win back. Genuine engagement is a gesture of goodwill shown to communities that have to bear the brunt of project impacts, from construction to operation: people must be respected.

The success of your project depends on whether your sponsors or stakeholders get the benefits they wanted, in the way they expected. You can forget important stakeholders, but they will not forget you – beware of expectations. The rules of engagement must be clear. The credibility of the project management office (PMO) is determined by the process, and not the outcome.

Members of the public expect their input to count, so it is vital to make the limits of participation very clear upfront. Expectations can quickly come back to bite you; stakeholders when consulted have legitimate expectations and there are too many examples of public emotion and outrage over the nature of perceived tokenistic consultations, rather than the proposed infrastructure itself. The public in post-Celtic-Tiger Ireland is increasingly cynical and vigilant, which is understandable in the circumstances.

Integrity is powerfully persuasive and effective change has to be led: managers need to be agile and stay flexible in their approach. The central plank of stakeholder engagement is the reputation and integrity of the project promoter. We have seen large public and private organisations suffer reputational damage due to issues with stakeholder engagement – you can lose your reputation in an instant after years of building it with care. PMOs need to seek first to understand and then be understood; continual dialogue can help wary stakeholders to engage.

Stakeholder-centric project management

Today’s projects are complex socio-political challenges that require stakeholder-centric project management, which should be aligned to stakeholder value and satisfaction. Such challenges have unpredictable consequences and require agile collective collaboration with all stakeholders.

Today’s PMOs are facing other new challenges, ranging from increasing project size and complexity to outsourcing, managing distributed teams, managing generation gaps between team members and, above all, the rise of social media in a world where everyone can be a journalist. The PMO team now needs to be collaborative; it requires effective leadership, support and resilience in the face of these new challenges. It must also engage in a continuous evaluation process and have independent review. High-performing project managers are known to lean more towards relationships as they see projects as essentially social enterprises; they are strong on social awareness and active listening. They are rarely seen at their desks!

A body of knowledge is developing around consultation, from stakeholder registers, analysis and mapping to detailed engagement and communication plans. New tools and processes are being rolled out, with software and online systems for stakeholder interest maps, impact charts, proximity maps, campaign plans, message calendars and the like (too much for this brief overview). But remember: you can have all the tools and sophisticated software you like but, if you lose credibility, you are in trouble!

Component parts of the project management discipline have long become respected specialisms in their own right: estimating, planning and scheduling, risk and resource management. Stakeholder engagement is now becoming a specialism, a crucial ingredient in the success of any project, requiring experience, skill and knowledge.

Billy Morrissey, a conciliator on Engineers Ireland’s Dispute Resolution Panel, is a chartered civil engineer and planner now specialising in construction dispute resolution and project stakeholder engagement, including consultation review. An accredited adjudicator and environmental mediator, he is a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators and a member of the Consultation Institute. Click here to contact





Author: Billy Morrissey BE LLM CEng MIEI FCIArb MtCI MIAgrE