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Engaging Stakeholders for Digital Equity Plans


As State Broadband Offices across the US are preparing their Statewide Digital Equity Plans, many are challenged by the requirement to adequately engage diverse stakeholders in their planning process. Fortunately the NTIA, the federal agency administrating the funding the effort, provides some valuable guidance on how to approach this requirement. These resources are particularly helpful:

Combined, the basic gist of the guidance is:

  1. Collaboration is Required
    1. The enabling legislation (IIJA, 2021) sets minimum collaboration requirements each state must meet
    2. NOFAs (current & pending) will specify additional guidance for collaboration and coordination
  2. Suggested Approaches
    1. Identify who to engage by creating three large group types: Public Service, Private Sector, and Community Serving
    2. Build in existing relationships to inventory previous success, existing processes, available capacities, and geographic & demographic coverage
    3. Develop a stakeholder engagement strategy that defines goals, establishes role, aligns resources, and measures success
  3. Strategies for Success 
    1. Build broad stakeholder support from the beginning
    2. Provide transparent processes and data flows
    3. Enable various methods to capture stakeholder priorities
    4. Connect the digital equity plan with other similarly aligned goals such as economic development, education, health, public safety, etc.

It's notable and commendable that a federal agency managing a multi-billion dollar investment program is encouraging state broadband offices to be intentional, careful, and thorough in seeking the input, participation, and support of a large, diverse stakeholder group.

The following ideas build on NTIA's guidance:

1. Quality of stakeholder input is determined by who is engaged and how.

Determining who to engage will directly impact the voice and focus of the stakeholder data; and because equity requires inclusion, it's important to have a strategy for identifying who to engage and how that engagement will be initiated, conducted, documented, applied, and supported.

 Who: NTIA guidance encourages states to engage spectrum of stakeholders.

  • Community Anchor Institutions 
    • Hospitals or other large health care providers
    • Public/private schools
    • Public libraries
    • Higher education institutions
    • Emergency management agencies
    • Multi-family housing authorities
  • County and Municipal Governments
    • Elected representatives
    • State association leadership
  • Leadership of Organizations Serving Priority Populations
    • Individuals in low-income households
    • Aging individuals
    • (Previously) Incarcerated individuals
    • Veterans
    • Individuals with disabilities
    • Individuals with language barriers
    • Members of a racial/ethnic minority
    • Individuals who primarily reside in a rural area
  • Indigenous Communities (where present)
    • Government
    • Businesses
    • Education
    • Social Services
  • Business, Economic Development and Regional Planning
    • Statewide business leadership
    • Regional economic development leadership
    • Regional planning leadership
  • Selected State Agencies
    • Economic and workforce development
    • Health
    • Education
    • Emergency management
  • Broadband Service Providers
    • Fixed wireline
    • Wireless

How: NTIA suggests a combined approach of communication, consultation, coordination and collaboration. Key qualities to build into all of these approaches include:

  1. Convenient - Being easy to engage can be complicated. It would help to have an "engagement design" that balances stakeholder convenience with budget and capacities.
  2. Transparent - Develop a clear description of the goals of the engagement, provide regular updates on progress, and connect project outputs (i.e., plan) with stakeholder inputs.
  3. Respectful - There are many aspects to being respectful to stakeholders, they are imperative to the engagement. A few ways to think about respect includes: communication styles, expectations and traditions, scheduling and usage of time, etc.
  4. Reciprocal - Stakeholder participation is voluntary many derive value from being heard, learning from others, and being involved in a topic they care about.

2. When stakeholders see their input applied a meaningful way, the overall effort (plan) improves. Steps can be taken to show stakeholders how their ideas and insights are considered by and included in the effort. The benefits of showing the connections between "input and outputs" include:

  • These "connections" can provide a strong measure of responsiveness, which is important on several levels
  • Stakeholders feel heard and more likely to support the effort's future
  • Stakeholder "ownership" can improve the success and sustainability of effort

3. The data created by stakeholder engagement can be insightful and highly useful. It's important to have a plan to collect, process, and apply stakeholder data. Aspects to consider for developing and managing this data include:

  • Accuracy - How well does the data capture the facts
  • Relevance - How on-target the data is with overall objectives
  • Relational - Degree to which different data types can be analytically integrated
  • Applicable - The practical utility of using the data in a meaningful way 

4. Looking down the road, stakeholder engagement for Statewide Digital Equity Plans can produce several useful outcomes for subsequent BEAD programs (i.e., capacity building and infrastructure development). Where done well, the Digital Equity Planning process will lay solid foundations for additional broadband investment programs by

  • Building rapport, connections, and support with a wide network of stakeholders
  • Providing contexts for additional data collection, consultations, and solutions 
  • Identifying resources and strategies useful to similar goals and objectives

The value of stakeholder input for IIJA-funded programs is immensely important. Without the careful and intentional use of stakeholder insights and ideas, the resulting plans, programs and investments are at risk of missing their marks. NTIA is clear about the goals and they recognize and encourage the use of strong, well thought-out approaches to stakeholder engagement. These are some of the ideas Futures Research uses to design stakeholder assessments for plans and projects.