Engaging stakeholders with good will and an open mind is important – but back that up with excellent planning and preparation! An open forum without structure may create a chaotic environment with little useful engagement and few constructive outcomes. When preparing for stakeholder engagement opportunities, a little planning can go a long way.
Be Clear about Meeting Purpose
Some stakeholder interactions are meant to solicit broad feedback; in other cases, the MTW agency will need targeted suggestions for improving a particular MTW activity or interpreting perplexing data. Ground the discussion by making the goals clear.
If the purpose of the meeting is to solicit feedback, state that purpose clearly, present the information in sufficient detail, and then ensure ample time for open discussion. Don’t try to tackle too many issues in one sitting. If the time available will not allow residents to receive clear information and engage in discussion and input on multiple issues, plan a separate meeting for additional topics.
Be Ready to Share Context
Remember that those being asked to provide input are not immersed in the program like MTW agency staff are. To provide effective input, stakeholders will need to have the context set. Even part way through the MTW period, new participants may lack context. It is important to spend a little time establishing a shared understanding of whatever topic the meeting is focusing on.
Be prepared to repeat yourself. Begin every engagement with a brief reminder of MTW’s purpose. Refresh the memories of those who have participated in the past about the background and context. Welcome newcomers by ensuring everyone participating is starting off on the same page.
Establish a Sense of Mutual Goals
Help everyone keep in mind that every MTW activity is part of a framework of mutual goals. Stakeholders will engage most effectively if they understand how the MTW activity under discussion will benefit community members and residents, and how success will be measured. Be sure to communicate that MTW activities involving procedural streamlining may appear to benefit the MTW agency and/or feel removed from stakeholder needs. But these efficiencies free up resources to enhance the MTW agency’s ability to provide excellent customer service, reduce burdens on residents, and implement additional services in the community.
Foresee and Address Stakeholder Concerns
Proactively identify possible hardships and anticipated tenant protections that will be put in place. This will demonstrate the MTW agency’s awareness of the community’s needs and provide a foundation from which the residents and community may feel protected from harm and know their needs have been considered in the process.
Anticipate residents’ concerns. For example, are residents likely to be concerned about potential rent increases as a result of implementing a new MTW activity? Bring in the experts, such as staff from the rental assistance office, who can directly address questions from a position of authority and provide specific examples of how changes might affect residents in real life.
Sharing data can empower stakeholders to offer suggestions from a foundation of knowledge rather than based on pure speculation. While data will always be imperfect, consider a variety of resources such as the experience of other agencies; analysis of anticipated outcomes and impacts; and data about actual impacts to date. Examples of the kinds of data an MTW agency might share, depending on the MTW activities selected, might include:
- Changes in time on waiting list
- Changes in the portion of income residents are responsible to pay toward housing
- Number of residents assisted with job programs
- Number of residents with increased incomes
- Number of hardships requested/approved
- Number of local, non-traditional units developed
- New units in low poverty area
- Reduced search time (looking for housing) for HCV participants
- Success rate of vouchers issued to voucher leased
- Number of working age and ability families with earned income
Have a Plan for Structuring the Discussion
A completely open forum is unlikely to achieve specific goals. Carefully consider how to structure the meeting to cover key topics in ways that encourage a range of people to contribute ideas. Strong agendas often provide:
- The goals for the meeting
- Context needed to engage in the meeting
- The topic to be addressed
- Opportunity for questions/clarifications about the topic
- Opportunity for input about concerns
- Opportunity for suggestions about how to resolve concerns or optimize implementation
- Statement by the MTW agency about how the input will be used and next steps
You’ve stated your goals, presented your information, and opened the floor for discussion, and…
No one speaks up to provide input. Have a plan for how you will stimulate the conversation and get people talking. Come prepared with specific, but open-ended questions. Highlight some of the concerns you believe residents may be feeling but do not yet feel comfortable expressing. Invite input once the concern has been acknowledged.
People enthusiastically voice concerns on a variety of topics, some of which are beyond the scope of the meeting. Use the discussion as a brainstorming session in which you engage residents as partners in a discussion about how to address the issue on the agenda for the meeting. Express appreciation that the additional issues were raised, and establish a “parking lot” for items that cannot be addressed in the moment. Be sure to follow up on those items!
Be Ready for Follow up
Trust is easily eroded if stakeholders spend time providing input that appears to disappear into a black hole. Go into any stakeholder meeting with a clear plan for how the input will be used, and how participants will see the results. Be sure to share that information with the stakeholders in the discussion of next steps – and then follow through!