This project won the CIEEM Best Practice Award for Stakeholder engagement in 2018, plus the Tony Bradshaw Best Practice Award.
Championing best practice stakeholder engagement for Hatfield Forest
As one of the last remaining intact Royal medieval hunting forests in Europe, Hatfield Forest is much-loved for its beauty, nature and wildlife. It draws hundreds and thousands of visitors a year to its woodland, but with increased housing in the area those numbers have kept rising – from 105,000 in 2007 to an estimated 500,000 in 2015.
The volume of forest users – including walkers, runners, cyclists, dog owners and horse riders – has severely impacted habitats as well as the experience for visitors. Such was the deterioration to some footpaths that the owners of the forest, the National Trust, created an awareness campaign with the aim of reducing footfall during the more susceptible winter months. However, initial solutions to the problem such as temporary closures caused a backlash with forest users. It became apparent that the National Trust and stakeholders would benefit from the help of an objective third party who could help resolve the highly contentious issues around recreation, access and sensitive habitats.
After a full review of the situation, Dialogue Matters recognised there needed to be a strong emphasis on the architecture of the process to ensure consensus building methods shifted people from their entrenched adversarial stance to more cooperative behaviour. As such, they recommended engagement that would provide genuine empowerment – this meant National Trust staff deciding on the priorities for action alongside stakeholders, not for them. Understandably this was met with caution from the National Trust although they recognised the benefits (and challenges) of working this way and were willing to ‘take the risk’.
Dialogue Matters then designed a process which would move all parties forward. Each form of engagement was designed to lead in to the next, with face-to-face deliberation and online interactive engagement running in sequence with the workshops either end of the process. Furthermore, each workshop was structured following design principles proven to increase what is covered by up to ten times. This was to ensure that all issues and tensions had the chance to come to the fore and be resolved.
Adversarial standoff vs co-operative progress: When people take a positional or adversarial approach, they withhold information, make threats, argue from positions, attack others’ knowledge, defend their position, work on each other and actively seeks a winning result. In contrast, those taking a principled or co-operative approach will share information, ask questions, explore people’s interests and needs, explore knowledge and perspectives, seek solutions, work on the challenge and actively seek a win/win scenario for all parties.
The process began with the National Trust gathering a small team of staff and volunteers. Dialogue Matters trained these people in facilitation skills so they could help deliver the workshops. Stakeholder representatives were then selected from five areas – community, recreation, environment/biodiversity, business and heritage/education.
The first workshop was designed to create a shared vision, to share information and build understanding. Participants were asked to consider what was already going in the right direction and what more was needed. From this, the group were encouraged to share solutions and shortlist six to take forward for greater investigation. They were also asked what they would want to know from the wider engagement that would help them in their discussions.
In between the two workshops, there was online engagement which tested what people thought of the shortlisted solutions. They were also asked the questions raised by the group from the first workshop. The outputs were then fed back to the initial stakeholders to inform their deliberations.
By the second workshop, people had worked up the solutions and the next steps required to make progress. They were also asked what offers they could make to contribute to the shared initiatives and shared outcomes.
The structure of this dialogue ensured genuine empowerment, with National Trust staff deciding priorities for action alongside stakeholders, rather than them deciding what to do and simply consulting on it. However, staff at the National Trust understood that this was just the start of a process to deliver a sustainable solution through co-creation of the solution.
It was clear that regular users of Hatfield Forest had strong emotional connections with the Forest. Understanding that their passion for the place was causing a problem but that they could also help identify the solution was transformative in changing attitudes and perceptions of the National Trust. For the team at the National Trust the process was also transformative, resulting in a cultural shift which led them to recognise the benefit and importance of local community support in the effective management of the site.
Co-creation: bringing different stakeholders together in order to jointly produce a mutually valued outcome.
This initial stakeholder dialogue has led to greater understanding from all parties about the issues and options, has resulted in greater cooperation, and has seen a commitment resolving the issues together for mutual benefit.
A working group comprising stakeholders and representatives from the National Trust is now focussed on implementing the agreed solutions, and in the spirit of this new cooperative approach there are regular updates of progress from the working group, while a dedicated web page and social media channels keep communication flowing.
- Consensus building is maximised by a careful design process
- It’s important to allow issues to come to the fore so they can be resolved
- A spirit of cooperation is fostered by focusing on what’s going well rather than on problems