What Stakeholders Want: How to Include Everyone in Water Planning

  • Successful strategic water planning requires targeted and tailored stakeholder engagement 
  • Each stakeholder group in the water sector places value on different elements of water planning
  • Without stakeholder buy-in a strategy will fail
Recently, I published a journal article, in which I discussed the different elements that were important for successful integrated water management (you can find the full article here).  These sorts of papers are very common, but what was different about this study was that we assessed which issues were most important according to several different stakeholders. Knowing what is important to a stakeholder is crucial if you need to engage with them or get them to buy into a strategic water plan. This paper enables us to understand what is important to specific stakeholders, enabling better targeting and focus of the plan to things that they consider important.

After decades of trying we know that only using “the power of the better argument”, by that I mean a “correct” solution determined by robust science, is not successful in convincing stakeholders (and especially the community more broadly) to agree with your proposed plan. This is because things like politics, priorities, and human emotions play an enormous part in the decision we make. As hard as it is for my rigid, overly rational “engineer” brain to admit, it is not exactly ground-breaking to suggest that humans, with human emotions, are influenced by those emotions when making decisions. In fact, it can be seen as condescending when after spending five minutes with someone you suggest the “correct” solution, undervaluing their knowledge and not recognising that they are in fact experts of their own situation. Simply put, if you do not understand your stakeholders you cannot get them to buy into whatever you are putting forward. Engagement must be targeted and tailored to the people you are engaging with or it will not be successful.

Firstly, I will need to explain the spider charts that were created (Figure 1), as they can be a bit confusing if you have not seen them before. What they show is the level of importance each the group placed on an issue, relative to the average importance from all stakeholders. Using bulk suppliers as an example; the black circle, marking the zero line, indicates the average for all stakeholders, if the issue is outside the black (like scales of planning or the planning pipeline) bulk suppliers believe it is more important than other stakeholders, for issues inside the black (collaboration and integration and decision implementation) bulk suppliers thought those issues were less important than the average stakeholder. Finally, the shape of the spider charts is also important. The more circular the chart is the more similar that stakeholder group was to average and therefore more integrated into the rest of the water sector.

Differences in ranking across stakeholders Please refer here for spider charts with a higher resolution

It should be noted that the stakeholder groups were categorised according to what made most sense for the water sector in Victoria, a state in South Eastern Australia. The legislative responsibilities, particularly between bulk suppliers (also called “rural water corporations”), retailers (or “urban water corporations”), and local government may be very different in other jurisdictions, and this should be considered when appropriating the results. You can read more about each stakeholder group and their responsibilities in the full paper. This page might also be helpful to better grasp Victoria’s legislative setup. 

Looking at the spider charts, the first thing that immediately strikes people is how different most of the charts are, meaning that “consensus opinion” is hard to find in water planning. Secondly, the local government spider chart loses all semblance of a circle. What this shows us is that local governments value aspects of water planning in a very different way than the rest of the sector. The same could be said for retailers, but to a lesser extent. This means that local government are the somewhat withdrawn from the water sector and need extra input to engage with them properly, this is something that reflects well with anecdotal evidence from the Victorian water sector. Finally, below I have listed what is relatively most important to each group:

  • Bulk suppliers: Appropriate level of regulation
  • Consultants: Public/Private interface
  • Government bodies: Cost and responsibility apportionment
  • Local government: Post-evaluation
  • Retailer: Appropriate level of engagement

The main finding of the survey was that stakeholders in the water sector view things in vastly different ways, placing value on different elements of water planning, they are not a single homogenous group. Therefore, treating these different stakeholders in a uniform way will not be successful. Instead, to engage with each stakeholder separately, you must target your engagement to what they see as most important, playing close attention to the list above. 

Two other interesting insights were derived by the survey. First, collaboration and integration was rated as the most important by all stakeholder groups and clearly the most important overall. Second, post-evaluation was rated as least important by every group except the local government. It is crucial that we understand why most water stakeholders do not value post-evaluation.

Not being able to understand stakeholders is a constant frustration in every sector, but it is vital to get their buy in and ultimately for the success of infrastructure planning when responsibilities are diversified. If I were to sum up my PhD in a sentence it would be that stakeholder buy in is the single most important factor in Integrated Water Management. Without buy-in a strategy will fail, so if you are not able to engage properly with stakeholders you might as well not do it at all.

To find out more you can read the paper in full.

Lachlan is passionate about the holistic impact that water systems have on society. He is currently a project manager with the International Water Centre (IWC) and sits as co-chair of the Australian Water Association’s SDG Specialist Network, using these roles to actively promote the SDGs in the Australian water sector. Previously he has completed a PhD in Integrated Urban Water Management and worked as a Water and Sanitation technical mentor in Cambodia.

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