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Stakeholders! Who are they and what do they want?

By Yvonne Lugali, WASH Sustainability Manager April 2023

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Figure 1: Stakeholders on a construction project during a site meeting- Ggaba sanitation facility in kampala

Anyone who has worked on a project knows how to carry out a stakeholder analysis. This includes stakeholder identification, engagement, and management. For those unfamiliar with this process, this diagram can help to summarize it;

Figure 2: Stakeholder Analysis Power-Interest Grid.

The goal of this process is to understand the stakeholders’ views on the project in alignment  with the issues they care about the most and the alignment of the relationships and their management throughout the project cycle between the different stakeholders and the issues they care about most.  All of this sounds standard and easy enough to do at the start of a project, but if I have learned anything over the years, a lot can go wrong from poor identification and mapping, forgetting an important stakeholder, and my favorite, changing power and interest dynamics. This is because human beings are allowed to change their minds.

To provide context, I will start this off with a story. In 2020, Water for People in Uganda received funding from GIZ to scale up improved sustainable safe sanitation and hygiene credible approaches in the urban and small-to-medium towns across Uganda. One of the specific objectives was to increase safe access to sanitation in peri-urban areas through construction of 4 public toilets and develop sustainable business models for their management. As the project manager, my first step was to bring together all the key stakeholders who included GIZ, Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), Ministry of Water and Environment (MWE), Division leaders (both political and technical), market authorities, owners and leaders, market vendors, local area leaders, and of course, the contractors.

We had everyone on board, or so we thought, and everything should have been able to move smoothly. We determined their interests, the power dynamics, made plans for regular engagements, and kept communication lines open throughout the project. However, a lot did go wrong, from eviction on sites where construction had began, to delays in design approvals, to contractor arrests due to misunderstanding, and to the issuance of nuisance notices. All of these problems can be traced back (in hindsight) to how we ‘managed’ our stakeholders. In this blog, I hope to share a few lessons that this experience taught me on the topic of stakeholder analysis and management.

Stakeholder identification is not a one-time process

The common practice is to carry out your stakeholder analysis at the start of the project. Instead, you should continuously revisit the stakeholder analysis throughout the project lifecycle. This is because stakeholders change, and new ones show up as the project progresses. Back to my story, one of the sites in Kampala was close to the railway line and within the designated area of the reserve. However, we had been convinced by the ‘landowners’, city and market authorities and local area leaders that this would not be an issue since there was a clear need for the sanitation facility in the area. Once we started the construction, sure enough Uganda Railways Corporation showed up and halted all the work, costing money and time, and we had to identify a new site. The lesson here is that as the project commences, identify if you have any new stakeholders who might be affected or interested by the project, determine their levels of influence and power, and develop plans for engagement.

Additionally, continuous due diligence should be carried out with all stakeholders because there are usually other stakeholders behind the ones identified who may affect your project. An example from our story is when we started working with KCCA, the department we worked with was the Directorate of Public Health and Gender, Community Services and Production. As the project commenced, we realized quickly that we needed to work with other directorates such as Physical Planning, who were supposed to approve all the designs for the sanitation facilities (something we assumed the first directorate would take care of). This ultimately led to a lengthy delay during the design approval process.

How to handle changing interests and power dynamics

Human beings by their nature change their minds constantly and can have varying interests. This is something that we tend to overlook in the project management process with the assumption that the stakeholders’ interests will remain the same through out the process. Drawing examples from our story, you would encounter a local political leader who welcomed the idea at the start but changed their mind and started pushing back once they realized that project construction would inconvenience a ‘potential voter’. The lesson here is to check for any changing interests of your stakeholders and keep communication lines open so that these issues can be addressed. A great avenue is during site meetings, make time to check that all stakeholder needs and interests are being met.

Power dynamics between stakeholders can also change. Stakeholders can move from one part of the power-interest grid to another during the project lifecycle. During the project, we had one of the local leaders at the project sites with high interest but low power and so he needed to be kept informed, but not managed closely. As the project progressed, we needed to extend electricity to the site by tapping it from his home. This changed the power dynamic and required us to manage him closely as any mismanagement would affect the project timelines. An important lesson here is to closely monitor these power-interest changes so that you can adequately prepare for them.  

Understand stakeholders’ system processes and timelines

Another key lesson tied to the stakeholder identification process is the appreciation and understanding of key stakeholder systems processes and timelines that can influence the project. As the sanitation facilities were being constructed, water and electricity were needed. However, we underestimated the time it would take to have service lines extended because we did not fully understand the utility companies’ processes. This affected the project timelines as the processes took longer than anticipated. If we had taken the time to understand these stakeholders’ processes, we would have started the service line extensions at the construction inception phase. Taking the time to understand these processes would have saved us a lot of time at the end.  

Ultimately, the public toilets were built, and the stakeholders were happy, but at a cost. Never forget that a project needs its stakeholders as much as the stakeholders need the project. Investment in the stakeholders’ analysis process throughout the project lifecycle is key to timely and on-budget delivery of all the agreed outputs.

Water for People is a global non-profit working across nine countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa to address the global water crisis and equip communities with lasting access to clean water and sanitation services- for Everyone Forever. The writer works with Water for People in Uganda.

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