One of the silver linings of COVID-19 is that it has given a big push to certain trends that were in play but not yet widely adopted. Look for a more detailed assessment of that broader topic in a future blog, while today we’ll focus on what you can expect when conducting an Economic Development Strategic Plan while a pandemic is playing out.

Of course, the urgency is that many communities need Economic Development Strategic Plans more than ever right now to help them chart a course toward resiliency, vitality, inclusion, growth, and economic diversity.  While we have had some clients pause their Economic Development Strategic Planning work, the majority have gone forward.  And more than a few have asked us to accelerate their project so that they can reset their strategies and come out of the current economic disruption more quickly to attain first-mover advantage.

The main area where COVID-19 intersects with the strategic planning process is in the on-site visits, where we typically conduct not only project status meetings but the all-important stakeholder engagement activities.  The most frequent question we get from clients is “Can we get the same quality input from stakeholders if we do it virtually?”  The qualified answer is “Yes.”

The pros:

  • Virtually every stakeholder is now familiar with video conferencing and other tools (no pun intended).
  • Most participants expect meetings to be conducted this way, and based on an informal poll of participants, many are still working from home or physical distancing at the office. Video conferencing allows participants to log in from anywhere, and we frequently have multiple people from a single organization all calling in separately because they are all in different places.
  • We are able to devote more time to the actual discussions with stakeholders by reallocating what would have been not-very-productive travel time to meetings and interviews with stakeholders.
  • As a result, our clients and their stakeholders are provided with a greater deal of flexibility by being able to call in from wherever they are and having more timeslots to choose from.
  • We are able to more precisely capture the stakeholder input, by being able to record the meetings and interviews and transcribe them or refer back to them for further clarity. This has allowed us to enhance our already robust reporting even further.
  • Having done thousands of stakeholder focus groups, roundtables, and interviews over the years, we know that some participants prefer writing or filling out a survey to speaking up in a group. Our multi-modal approach to gaining input from the sessions we do easily translated to virtual technologies, which helps to ensure that every stakeholder has the opportunity to provide their input and perspective.

The cons:

  • Some stakeholders in certain locations may have spotty or inconsistent internet connection, which may negatively impact their ability to participate in the virtual discussions.
  • In virtual focus group meetings with many participants it can be challenging for shy or quiet stakeholders to provide their input (this also happens during in-person focus group meetings as well). To address this, we often have multiple ways for each stakeholder to participate and offer follow up interviews with key individuals as well.
  • Let’s face it, a virtual meeting is just not quite the same as a face-to-face meeting. We strive to connect on an empathetic level with the stakeholders we speak with, but you can’t perfectly replicate the personal touch of meeting in-person with someone.

We hope that by sharing these insights, we can help those communities that are considering virtually facilitated engagements but are hesitant about doing so. As we come out of the COVID-19 travel restrictions and more businesses open up, Ady Advantage fully expects that certain elements of the virtual approach will remain, and the norm going forward will be a hybrid approach that blends the best of in-person and virtual engagement strategies.

Feel free to reach out to Ady Advantage today, and we’d be happy to discuss how we can help your community facilitate stakeholder engagement during these times filled with challenge, but also opportunity.