Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Holding Stakes

What is the difference between a public consultation and a stakeholder consultation? When managers use words like stakeholder what exactly do they mean? How do you tell a stakeholder from a member of the public? The truth is that it’s a very convenient term for managers who can make it mean more or less what they want – so it has to be categorized as a weasel word, one that implies more than it states carrying a sort of meaning that rarely gets defined or challenged but useful for distancing managers from those being managed. I referred to stakeholders when reporting on a recent post More Minutes. This is a teasing subject because interpretation is all.

When Eastern Moors Partnership consulted they too had a series of near identical workshops to those being held by Sheffield Moors Partnership. After that a selection was made of certain individuals named as stakeholders but not identified who would go forward as special consultees. As far as I could tell when things were so secretive they were representative of various groups such as climbers, farmers, ramblers, and neighbouring landowners, councillors etc. The rationale was doubtless that the chosen ones in some way had more of an interest in the outcome of decisions made than ordinary members of the public however much the latter might know the land and understand the issues. The trouble with this is that the particular chosen individuals may have little knowledge of the details compared with others who are not chosen. Unless they make a point of canvassing much wider opinion then there is a strong likelihood that certain perspectives could be sidelined or just ignored. That of course might be to the advantage of the managers who might prefer not to have to respond to views and ideas that they are not comfortable with or which challenge their own interests.

That is indeed what happened with the EMP consultation. Despite asking to be considered a stakeholder in the EMP consultation my request was turned down and the names of those who were kept from me. It was as if the managers were trying to prove just how undemocratic they could be. Yet Danny Udall the EMP manager had said in answer to a question from me at a public meeting that the EMP was absolutely transparent.

Hence my question to a Sheffield City Council officer representing partners in SMP asking what was meant by the South West Community assembly being a 'key' stakeholder.
The answer I received was thus:

"The South West Community Assembly was identified as a key stakeholder due to the fact that the majority of the Sheffield Moors Partnership (SMP) Area falls within the South West Community Assembly Area. One of the key functions of Community Assemblies is to ensure local communities are effectively engaged in decisions effecting their neighbourhoods. Given the location of the SMP area within the South West Assembly area, it was felt appropriate that a report was taken to specifically to the public meeting on the 15th December 2011. Further reports will be taken as the masterplan develops. The key stakeholder referred to is not a reference to the Assembly Manager. The stakeholder reference is a reference to the Councillors that represent the wards within the South West Assembly.

The proximity of this valued landscape to Sheffield as a whole, means that quite rightly all Sheffield residents could be considered stakeholders in what happens within the SMP area. It is with this in mind that Stage 1 of the Masterplan production has been concerned with publicising to as wide an audience as possible, the Stage 2 consultation events that will take place during February and March. The SMP Steering Group is very clear that is wishes to ensure all stakeholders have an opportunity to express their views as part of the Masterplan production process. These consultation workshops are open to all who wish to attend and I feel demonstrate the Steering Group's inclusive approach."

On first reading that may sound fair enough. But when everyone is a stakeholder what is the position of the public? And then what is the role of the 'key' stakeholder? Perhaps it’s best to ask who is not a stakeholder? And does a kind of blanket definition not give more influence to the managers themselves whose role is the only one distinguished from the general mass of the public?

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