Stakeholder engagement in the digital age: Practitioners’ perspectives of the challenges and opportunities for planning and environmental decision-making (PhD thesis, 2018-2023)

My PhD thesis was an applied piece of work that sought to shed light on what works in engagement, in the context of engagement moving increasingly online.

Conducted mostly during the COVID-19 pandemic, this research investigated practitioners’ perspectives of the challenges and opportunities for public and stakeholder engagement in the digital age, focusing on planning and environmental decision-making processes in the UK. My research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and was supervised by Dr Robert Berry (CCRI), Dr Beth Brockett (Forest Research, previously Natural England), Professor Scott Orford (Cardiff University), and Chris Short (CCRI).

My research was driven by a strong impact goal, which infused my work with my own personal values that research should be useful and relevant beyond academia. This included co-producing the impact and research goals with practitioners to ensure that the outcomes of the research were of relevance to the practice of participants. My thesis was written in as accessible as style as possible, using devices like text box summaries, for practitioners to be able to learn effectively from the research.

Public and stakeholder engagement refers to the process of involving people who are affected by a decision or policy in the decision-making process. This means that people who are impacted by a decision, such as members of a community, businesses, charities, and local authorities, are given a chance to express their views, opinions, and concerns. By involving interested and affected groups of people, decision-makers can better understand the needs and desires of those who will be impacted by their decisions, which can lead to better outcomes.

The research produced 10 key thinking points for conducting engagement in an increasingly digitised world. The results and recommendations will be published online in 2023.

10 thinking points for engagement in the digital age (source: Caitlin Hafferty)

Summary of the research

Effective engagement is crucial for making better decisions that lead to more sustainable, equitable, and resilient outcomes. This is why involving members of the public and other stakeholders has become more common in research, policy, and practice at different levels. However, the success of engagement can vary depending on the social and institutional contexts. In a continuously more digitised world, there are still unanswered questions about the benefits of digital tools and their effectiveness in achieving the goals of engagement. These questions became increasingly urgent during the COVID-19 pandemic which placed technology-related disparities into the spotlight.

The PhD thesis drew from research during the pandemic with practitioners and practice-enablers in the UK public, private, and third sectors. The findings revealed comprehensive insights into the technical and ethical debates around digital engagement and inclusion, digital literacy, power relations, social interaction, trust and transparency, digital well-being, privacy and security, among other issues. Challenging prevailing attitudes of ‘digital by default’ and ‘digital first’, the findings demonstrated that there is no single digital, in-person, or hybrid approach which guarantees successful engagement in all situations.

One important theme that emerged from the interviews was that to be successful in the long term, any engagement process (regardless of the methods used) needs to be institutionalised as part of the governance and decision-making structures of the organisations responsible for carrying out engagement. The findings respond to calls for a stronger evidence base for institutionalising engagement by delivering rich insights into the challenges and opportunities for undertaking engagement within organisational settings, considering available resources (including time), capacity and capability, participant expectations, and staff agency to engage. This research indicated that many of these issues are rooted in organisational cultures and therefore may require a culture change to mitigate risks in the long term.

Overall, the findings provide valuable and novel insights into what works for engagement by emphasising the need to match engagement processes to the context and purpose in which they are needed.

As far as the researcher can tell, this research provided the most comprehensive overview to-date of the range of different factors that shape the outcomes of engagement and how they can change in digital and remote environments (compared to in-person situations). The research also made significant contributions to a gap in existing evidence on what is required for institutionalising engagement practices.

The research made evidence-led recommendations (‘thinking points’) for policy and practice to enhance existing strategies for carrying out, and institutionally embedding, effective engagement in an increasingly digitised world.

My PhD thesis was examined by Professor Mark Reed (SRUC) and Dr Julie Urquhart (CCRI) on the 4th April 2023. I passed by viva with minor corrections and my PhD thesis will likely be available online later in the year. I am currently working on producing a range of evidence-led outputs which are relevant for practitioners and practice-enablers who are carrying out public and stakeholder engagement in their work, including guidance and ‘best practice’ case study examples.

If you have any questions, would like to find out more about outputs from my research, or are interested in collaborating, please get in touch.