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The Importance of Bringing Stakeholders to the Court Planning Table

by Alison Jones / August 15, 2019

For over 20 years, I’ve participated in planning sessions with government agencies (mostly court planning) as an analyst and facilitator. While each session has involved challenging issues, I can honestly say that each session has been a success. Part of this is due to the core planning team's participation and the facilitators' skill in leading the sessions. (Facilitation is both an art and a science and must be handled by someone highly skilled in observation, communication, information-gathering, and group dynamics.) But there is something else that has underpinned every successful planning session I’ve ever been a part of. That something involves a wide range of stakeholders in the planning process.

A stakeholder can be defined as an "individual or group that has an interest in any decision or activity of an organization." However, stakeholders are often seen as bothersome or an afterthought. As court planning consultants, we like to flip this thinking. When we begin a strategic planning effort, one of the first questions we ask is, “Who are the stakeholders?” Different messages and levels of communication can be developed for the various stakeholders based on their specific roles and stake in the process. However, we would like to be more inclusive regarding the planning sessions. We want to invite to the planning table those entities whose work impacts or is impacted by the court engaged in the planning process.

So, if you are about to undergo a strategic planning effort for your court, why should you bring stakeholders to the table? Why not report back to them on a “need-to-know” basis after making the decisions?

Below are four critical outcomes of a successful planning session, highlighting the importance of including stakeholders in the planning process.

Gather Information

The very definition of a stakeholder indicates that they have some vested interest in the decisions you are making. However, this interest isn’t always passive or on the receiving end. Many stakeholders have a “downstream” impact – their work impacts YOUR court. A prime example is law enforcement agencies and prosecutors' work in bringing cases into the court system. When planning for a court project, it is essential to hear from those entities whose initiatives or plans may affect the court's workload. Gathering this information can help you decide where to place limited court resources.

When working with courts, we ask law enforcement personnel and prosecutors critical questions about their workload and initiatives. We also ask what initiatives or focus areas they see on the horizon. Their insight is invaluable in helping the court understand potential shifts in – and volume of – court workload. Equally helpful is information about hiring patterns of law enforcement agencies or plans to open or close a law enforcement office within the court district’s boundaries.

Although we specialize in court planning, information-gathering among stakeholders can apply to any business line. Years ago, we conducted strategic resource assessments for land ports of entry across the northern and southern borders. For these planning sessions, we met with transportation representatives to gather critical information on highway plans around the port, as these infrastructure projects significantly impact border crossings in some areas. Gathering this information early in the process helps keep everyone on the same page and helps upstream and downstream agencies plan accordingly.

During these information-gathering sessions, issues that had yet to be previously considered are often raised. While not all information will be included in the resource plan, awareness helps the various entities plan and work collaboratively. And we have found that people appreciate being given a voice, which leads to my second point.

Build Relationships

With the frenetic pace of most workplaces, it can be rare to get decision-makers from one agency in the same room simultaneously, let alone those from different agencies. This often leads to fragmentation and people at cross-purposes in making business decisions that do not connect within and between agencies. I like to think of the planning process as a puzzle to be solved – and each organization brings several puzzle pieces to the table. Without all the pieces, the puzzle is never complete.

Planning process puzzle

No matter how much technology and mobile work arrangements advance, face-to-face communication is vital, especially when making critical business decisions. When you invite stakeholders to the planning process, you help frame the issue as important and exciting to ALL who have a stake. This shows respect and helps build relationships.

Using the court example again, law enforcement agencies or prosecutors must have a solid working relationship with court representatives. These entities often share space in the same building or interact with one another during business. Having a positive relationship goes a long way in not only addressing the current pressing issues but also making for a more pleasant working relationship down the road. Isn’t that something we all want?

Solve Problems

Positive relationships are essential for another outcome that is often a byproduct of planning sessions, and that is problem-solving. We have frequently seen representatives from different agencies work out solutions to problems while sitting around the same table. For example, we have seen space swaps (“I didn’t know you needed more space. We have an underutilized training room that we can spare.”) and security solutions (“Would it be possible to move the door over there and install a camera here to resolve your security concern?”)

Often, the problems that get resolved are not the primary focus of the more extensive planning session, but by getting everyone in the same room and talking, magic happens. These more minor victories enhance the overall success of the planning session. The important thing is to be as open and transparent as appropriate and come to the sessions with a desire to work together. If you are stuck trying to resolve a problem, consider bringing a stakeholder into the conversation. Their unique perspective may be exactly what you need.

Generate Buy-In

Not all planning sessions require buy-in from all stakeholders, but critical working relationships and planning sessions often benefit significantly from such buy-in. Involving stakeholders in the process helps build group consensus and promotes buy-in. When people feel heard, respected, and engaged and understand their stake better, this leads to acceptance.

When affected organizations have advance notice about your plans and the “why” behind them, they are much more likely to accept and support them and not put up roadblocks. The planning sessions can also provide the forum to help stakeholders see the benefit of a particular action you plan to take (e.g., “By building a larger sallyport and relocating the cellblock, you will be able to bring larger passenger vans into a secure area with direct, secure access into the courthouse.”)

Give Stakeholders a Seat at the Table

For the above reasons, stakeholders should be given a dedicated spot at the planning table. I would like to suggest a slightly different twist on the definition of the word stakeholder:

Stakeholder, n. “valued partner”

When we see stakeholders as valued partners who are welcome at the table, the spirit of collaboration can flourish.

Tags: Courthouse Planning

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Alison Jones

Alison Jones

Alison is a senior consultant with a master’s degree in organizational/industrial psychology and a certification in change management and coaching. She enjoys reading, fitness, travel, and the beach.