When a problem arises, school leaders have three options: you can choose inaction; trust their instincts or those of your closest advisors; or reach out to your stakeholders to see where their interests lie. Well, inaction might be the most comfortable response, but turning away from problems tends to worsen the situation. Trusting your instincts or relying on the inner circle is a better idea, however, one must be aware of the opinion echo chamber - a situation in which beliefs are amplified or reinforced inside a closed system and prevents them from being critical. One other way to deal with concurring issues is seeking the opinions of your stakeholder.
Keep in mind that you do not have to consult all of your stakeholders for every decision you make at the school's interest. That would be a waste of resources and incredibly cumbersome.
But for more significant issues (dealing with school assets, catchment revisions, innovation planning, infrastructure building, etc.), engaging your stakeholder is a MUST.
Traditionally, the school management team would consult with Representatives of Parent Associations (PA) when a problem arises. However, when they organize these PA meetings, it is always the same people showing up. While acting as a channel between the school and the parents, Parent Association can sometimes be biased to make decisions that only benefit the group, without considering most parents. Because of this inefficient model, school leaders need to draft a new framework to engage their stakeholders in a meaningful way.
There are five criteria that determine the success of a Stakeholder Engagement System (SES)
1. Fast – deployment and response
While some issues can be predicted well in advance – closing a school, adopting a new calendar, selling off district real estate, etc. – long consultation periods are not always a luxury you will have.
When a crisis or an accident comes up, the quicker you can get in front of stakeholders to gather input, the better.
The system you use needs to be easy and fast to deploy. It should also be easy and fast for your audience to participate.
2. Flexible – the ability to adapt to varying needs and scope
For a consultation to be meaningful, it has to happen inclusively throughout the decision-making process, not after. This is where a flexible platform of stakeholder engagement proves superior to regular PA meetings. While parent councils have deep roots and the best intentions, they rely on in-school meetings – typically on school afternoons or nights – limiting the number of parents can attend. Even for those who joined, new information still gets clogged up between meetings, which hinders stakeholders from doing what is best for the students.
On the other hand, a flexible platform enables stakeholders to contribute when they want, and through their preferred channels. Also, information flow can be easily maintained throughout the whole decision-making process.
3. Accessible – to stakeholders and multiple users
Accessibility should be judged from the perspective of both school leaders (e.g., the district superintendent or school principal) and the other users. Ideally, your engagement system will be available to as many people as possible on both sides of the exchange. On the leaders' side, you will reap greater benefit if your system can be used at various levels. For example, you can quickly glance at the common rising needs of some schools and deliver systematic solutions for all of those.
4. Controlled – avoid the hazards of Facebook, Twitter and blogs
An effective SES system must allow you to manage the process, keep discussions on topic and comply with your communications policies. While it might sound appealing to open a Facebook group and let your audience share, like and comment away, this environment is not designed – and hence not suitable – for operational decision-making support. For starters, you cannot easily control troll comments and who will post what. When argument among participants arises, it is hard to regulate on an open social media platform like Facebook.
The same goes for Twitter, which lacks the ‘memory’ capabilities to provide you with meaningful and validated input. Once someone mentions your school in a post, it flashes across the hashtag and then disappears almost as quickly as it appeared. The functions and structure on Twitter do not allow participants to engage in meaningful, organized and focused conversations.
5. Transparent – allowing stakeholders to maintain visibility into the process from start to finish
Despite the best intentions, school boards and parent councils are seen as an isolated group and ignorant towards stakeholders' ideas. No amount of Public Relations efforts can easily reverse this perception. The only thing that can solve this is a sustained effort to share and publish thoughts and actions with stakeholders via meaningful communication channels. A transparent platform will provide reliable support for all decisions made and include all participants, fostering more substantial buy-in.