Nov 12 2012 /
Stakeholders & Public Policy
When it comes to environmental policy, complexity is the rule. The most elegantly crafted policy proposals, simple and pure, are the ones that meet the fiercest resistance. This is because public policy does not take place in a vacuum. It must conform to real world constraints as much as it tries to modify them.
Stakeholder engagement as public policy tool
In addressing the most urgent environmental policy issues of the day – energy, climate, waste, water, to name a few – policymakers must actively seek input from all parties that would be affected. This does not simply mean opening up policy proposals to public comment. It means government agencies must reach out and engage affected groups, in an equal and transparent way.
To governments concerned with costs and obsessed over efficiency, the process of stakeholder engagement may seem cumbersome, a distraction from implementing important measures in the public interest. However, recent events in New York State underscore the urgency of a deliberate and open approach to policymaking. There, Governor Andrew Cuomo, as he was debating whether to allow hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in his state, caught flak for what became perceived as preferential access for industry into his decision-making process. This was made public and angered some environmental groups who felt left out of the process. Shortly thereafter the governor offered a special invitation to environmental groups to discuss his plans. Some suggest that this miscalculation is in some part responsible for the continued delay on greenlighting natural gas in the state. In any case, this example illustrates the danger of conducting stakeholder engagement in an ad hoc, non-systematic way.
Stakeholder Forum: Mining the Other
The good news is that there are state governments that use engagement effectively to improve outcomes and, perhaps more importantly, increase trust in the process. Our own experience confirms the benefits of active stakeholder engagement as a core component of public policy making.
On October 12, Future 500 hosted a stakeholder forum exploring, among other topics, mechanisms to help California reach its ambitious 75% recycling target. The forum, entitled “Mining The Other: Towards 75% Recycling of California’s Waste,” was convened to gather specific recommendations to improve the state’s plastic recycling infrastructure, and to extrapolate broader recommendations to reach 75%. Crucially, state policymakers are using transparent stakeholder engagement as a core component of their planning to improve materials recovery.
Recycling was identified as one key area (along with source reduction and composting) to focus efforts and drive improvements towards the target. The state sponsored research into potential technical and infrastructural solutions, and Future 500 brought together key stakeholders and facilitated an intensive dive into the technical, policy and economic aspects of the problem.
Taking on recycling is particularly complicated, as it involves many different players along the value chain with different incentives and perspectives on the problem. These interests frequently diverge, thwarting most recycling reform efforts and stalling innovation. However, Future 500 has found that using targeted, strategic stakeholder engagement can eliminate many of those roadblocks and uncover a suite of mutually-advantageous solutions.
The discussion brought to the surface some tangible improvements that would not just help the state reach its targets, but importantly, would also increase the value of the recycling stream. The most exciting outcome was that many of the proposals put forward would benefit multiple stakeholders at once. Such policies rarely emerge from silo thinking. Open dialogue is the key to reaching these optimal solutions.
The “softer side” of public policy
This example underscores how, when done systematically, a commitment to openness and transparency can engender trust and improve outcomes. What many decision makers fail to realize is that trust and outcomes are intertwined. No amount of data or peer-reviewed research can convince a wary public of the benefits of a policy unless stakeholders buy into the process itself. Stakeholder engagement – whether informal or formal – can be considered the softer side of policy development. This holds true for companies as well as government.
Strategic and targeted engagement
As with any formal convening, the most essential task is getting the right people in the room. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the formal process is itself an outcome of continuous relationship building and personal trust. It should not be considered the starting point. Without deep connections with groups and individuals who have a stake in improving recycling performance, built over years, Future 500 would not have been able to bring together such a strategic cross-section of interests. Informal engagement is in many ways more important than the formal stakeholder forums that are so often convened with little effect. We view environmental problem solving as maintaining drawn-out conversations. It is important to maintain such relationships with key players working on all of the important environmental issues of the day.
The sum is greater than the parts
This is a cliché, but when it comes to stakeholder engagement in the public policy context, it definitely rings true. Each party at the table brings their own interests to the table. But, contrary to conventional wisdom, this can be a good thing, provided the table has seats for all groups who will be influenced by the policy. Without a mechanism for impacted groups to air out their concerns, policies will often meet resistance. The outcome of such processes are generally far less beneficial than they would otherwise be.