There is an interesting conversation to be had on stakeholder engagement. It is now common in many processes that aspire to achieve a transformation of one kind or another to incorporate some aspect of engagement with those who will be impacted by the potential outcomes.
It often involves a lot of multi’s – multi level, multi lateral, multi stakeholder – and can become confusing and bureaucratic in its language. However at its heart is a sensible desire to bring on board all the relevant parties, so that decisions are made taking into account the many and varied interests.
At a national level, it can take the form of social partnership: governments taking policy decisions after consulting with businesses, trade unions and other relevant organized groups, such as farmers, consumers or the environmental sector. At the global level, it forms an essential part of the United Nations processes, notably the inclusion of stakeholders in the COP (Conference of the Parties) process on addressing the climate crisis.
Within the EU, the process of taking into account the many and varied interests is also commonly used. During the drafting of the Circular Economy Action Plan, all of the EU legislative institutions recognised the need for a multi- stakeholder approach. After all, the ambitions set out to achieve a Circular Economy were great, and if fully realised would have a disruptive impact on many business-as-usual models, from design, through manufacturing and supply chains, to new ownership models.
In the new spirit of breaking silos and of working in new partnerships, the European Commission (EC) and the Economic and Social Committee (EESC), as the home of Civil Society in the EU, established a joint Platform to enable this to happen. The first of its kind, it seemed appropriate and ideal to create the mould for stakeholder engagement in order to deliver on an ambition to reset a broken economic model.
The European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform was born in March 2017. So what makes it different, and what do we know about how it has functioned and grown in the last two years?
The Secretariat for the Platform is managed by the EESC, and the Platform itself is open to everybody. The idea was to ensure that it did not become a Brussels-centric body of the same old faces, and the same old vested interests. Instead, the Platform would reach across all member states, and collect strong functioning examples of what was working, out there in the real world. Also, it would facilitate conversations and sharing of lessons learned between those active in the area, helping to connect the players. Equally, this would be a source for identifying what was needed from policy makers to help assist those trying to transform to circular thinking, or circular business models.
To access as broad a range of people and organisations as possible there would be an online presence, a dedicated website. This has been established and receives regular visitor numbers of approximately 7,000 per month. This is the basic background level of activity but of course it spikes when there is a specific event.
The website has been a huge success in allowing anyone with an internet connection to access the hundreds of practical examples of activities in the circular economy space. It is also interactive, in that there are discussion forums, plus a facility to upload what you, as a circular economy activist, are doing to bring about the transformation.
The website is a living space, always growing and developing, with a live feed from twitter conversations, and new best practice examples being added all the time. In another first, after 60 years, it is the first inter-institutional EU website.
The critical element that makes it innovative is that it is stakeholder driven. The EESC hosts the site but the online activity is driven by the circular economy community. This means that the working good practices come from all sizes of organisation, from entrepreneurs to big business to social enterprises, and the online space provides a platform for these people to connect and share knowledge and learning. The website also hosts a section on the different Circular Economy Strategies that have been developed all over Europe, allowing those developing new strategies or assessing implementation of existing strategies to avail themselves of living experiences of others in the same or related fields.
Yet with all the technological advancement in the world, there is still no substitute for meeting face to face. Therefore the EESC and Commission have organised and co-hosted a European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform conference and networking opportunity on an annual basis. These conferences have been extremely well attended. Last March it was exciting to see queues of delegates out on to the street on Rue De la Loi in Brussels as they prepared to register in the Charlemagne building for the first day of the two day event.
These events have really highlighted the synergetic benefit of the EESC and EC working together to facilitate this type of stakeholder engagement. The Commission takes ownership at the highest levels and can clearly communicate the latest initiatives, and the future trends of their legislative proposals and work plans. Stakeholders can feed back into this process through interactive workshops.
The EESC focuses on linking those who are rolling up their sleeves and making the change happen. A second day of short focused working groups are facilitated. This year, a Networking Village was established as a type of pop-up feature, allowing those all-important face-to-face interactions to happen.
These conference attendees get close to a thousand people in number and therefore it is a challenge to ensure that the different voices are captured, and the lessons and knowledge gathered are harnessed in some way.
With this in mind, the EESC and the Commission decided to establish a Coordination Group to facilitate the functioning of the Platform. The Coordination Group is made up of 24 stakeholder representatives ranging from different sectors – local government, civil society, national or sectoral networks and academia.
The establishment of this Coordination Group again reflected the appetite for Circular Economy across the EU, with almost 200 applications to join the 24-person group.
The Coordination Group obviously does not include all the most important and valuable actors in the space, however it does try to represent a cross section of groups and represents a geographical range that includes 13 different member states.
In yet another innovative approach to stakeholder engagement the Chair of this group is held in rotation by the stakeholders themselves. Currently, Ladeja Godina Košir, a strong networker from Circular Change in Slovenia is the elected Chair of the group for 2019.
Members meet once a year between the conferences, but also gather informally when they find themselves all at the same circular events across Europe. The emphasis is not on meetings but rather on action, and the group has designed and is implementing a constructive work plan to ensure the wider Platform continues to function well and adds value to the creation of a circular economy in Europe, and ultimately in supply chains that go beyond the EU.
The Platform has managed to break through some of the normal limitations of stakeholder engagement. These limitations can include the fact that it is often the most organised that have the strongest representation. The average citizen has many hats: a consumer, a householder, a business person/owner, a worker, an entrepreneur, a driver, a renter, a user of services and so on. But the average citizen is not always organised in a way that allows them to feel they are represented in these many, varied and complex perspectives. Stakeholders are often groups of organised vested interests, with a very specific focus. It is important to be open to all voices to help design a future that is fair and that can actually function in the best interests of society as a whole.
It is interesting to note that a new paradigm, or a new economic model such as a circular economy, will create new business models and new ways of interacting with goods and services as consumers. These future stakeholder groups, by definition, do not yet exist. It is a limitation of stakeholder engagement when it comes to designing ambitious new futures. Each group very often has a particular corner of this paradigm to try and protect.
The experimental model of stakeholder engagement used to structure the Platform has yielded valuable lessons. Engagement is best when it is open to all. Institutions and policy makers can provide valuable structures and supports but should not take the lead when designing the message. Furthermore, the vision for the future must be clearly communicated so that all in society can see where the improvements from their perspectives are – whatever particular hat they may be wearing at that moment.
The linear economic model has failed us on all quantifiable means. We have lived through a period of economic collapse, environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, societal inequality, and a paralysis of action. Circular thinking provides one small but important tool to deliver a brighter more equitable and prosperous future for us all. The European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform needs to remain dynamic and responsive in order to deliver. It is yet to be seen if that is possible. But certainly the message is: so far so good. Lots done, more to do.
European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform, https://circulareconomy.europa.eu/platform/en