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The High Stakes of Stakeholder Engagement: A Plea for Careful Planning from Public Agenda

by Allison Rizzolo

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

This post was written for the 20 community colleges participating in Completion by Design, a five-year Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation initiative that aims to significantly increase completion rates for low-income students under 26. As a “National Assistance partner” for Completion by Design, Public Agenda provides direct assistance to the colleges to help them build capacity for solutions-oriented dialogue among faculty, staff and administration. Here, Public Agenda's Alison Kadlec discusses best practices for authentic internal stakeholder engagement. While the post is geared toward Completion by Design planning teams, the principles are useful for any authentic engagement process.

Public Agenda is in the midst of finishing a user-friendly Internal Stakeholder Engagement toolkit to support cadres and colleges efforts to more effectively engage key internal stakeholders (faculty, staff, and administration) during the final quarter of the planning year. While the short-term goal of this toolkit is to help the Senior Partners, Managing Partner Directors, cadre team leads, co-leads and trained facilitations engage internal stakeholders to inform the design of the cadres model pathway plans, it is important that cadres also take a broader view of this work and plan accordingly

Authentic engagement of key internal stakeholders is tricky and can backfire if not done carefully and well—and good intentions are not enough to guarantee success. Even in the context of great ideas and the best of intentions, lack of goal clarity, poor issue framing, unskilled facilitation, and inattention to the seemingly mundane details of process can undermine trust and alienate the very people who are and could be the most important change-agents on behalf of student success and completion.

To be clear, we do not mean to suggest that these are mysterious matters that are beyond the capacities of the capable professionals that make up this initiative. We only wish to caution you against moving too quickly, to take the time to plan your engagement activities carefully so they reap the greatest benefits and avoid the pitfalls that hastily-designed efforts can fall into.

As you well know, community college faculty, staff and administrators are some of the hardest working and most dedicated people in this country, and it is difficult to overestimate the importance of the work they do every day (even the ones who drive you crazy). In a climate that combines shrinking resources and greater need than ever, these vital internal stakeholders are stretched thin, weary and wary. Yet their knowledge, expertise, and commitment are critical to meeting the challenges around student success and completion.

Given the tight timeframe and heavy lift involved during the compressed planning year, it is tempting to rush ahead without paying sufficient attention to the core principles, golden rules and red flags of engagement. But the costs of doing so can be steep: with each poorly designed engagement event or activity, you make it harder and harder to win the confidence of the people that you most need as partners in change, the people who you will need to carry out the work with you post-planning year.

The toolkit we are producing for January 23 is designed to support high-quality, solution-oriented dialogue, deliberation, planning and action by diverse actors so they can play a more robust and constructive role in meeting your shared challenges. It will include a number of discrete elements, presented for easy use on short time-lines.

But don’t get us wrong, there definitely is work you can be doing now. Between now and January 23, we recommend that you and your team think carefully and take the time to articulate clearly to one another your views on how better dialogue, deliberation and coordinated action will help you promote greater student success and completion. Ask yourselves the following questions:


  • What are the key challenges you face as you work to more effectively and efficiently support student success and completion?
  • Who are the actors/stakeholders who can best inform your efforts?
  • Who will play a major role in implementing needed change, who can undermine or endanger your efforts if they feel railroaded rather than engaged as partners?

  • What do you hope to accomplish through stakeholder engagement and how will the methods and strategies you employ set you up for success?
  • What is the worst case scenario coming out of a round of stakeholder engagement, and what can you do during the planning, execution and follow-up phase to mitigate the chances of this outcome?
  • What are the best-case outcomes that you are hoping to achieve, and what is the single most important thing you can do to bring that about?


    Once you’ve begun to think these questions through, the materials we will provide in the toolkit can help you develop and implement the most promising strategies and methods for engaging the critical stakeholders who can make or break your efforts to improve, and even transform, how students achieve meaningful degrees and credentials.



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