The Public Stake Pitfall

She sat in the interview, pleased to have been invited, uncertain whether it was the right job in the right place at the right time.

She wasn’t nervous, and she had confidence it was a job she could do if they wanted her and she wanted them. Yet she was less confident that she could perform at the interview itself. She felt a deep hesitancy inside that she tried to disguise, or at least muffle each time she took a breath to answer a new question.

“What stakeholders would you envisage dealing with in this role, and how would you manage your relationship with them and thus their relationship with the organisation?” asked one of the interview panel.

She paused. She had listed likely stakeholders at the end of her presentation at the beginning of the interview. She listed them again. She added a few more that might be occasionally relevant. She stopped speaking. The panel looked expectant. She resisted the invitation to waffle unconvincingly.

“Isn’t there a group you’ve missed?” asked the same panel member who’d asked the original question.

“Clearly there must be someone you’re thinking of or you wouldn’t ask that,” she replied, this time trying to hide her irritation at their clumsy attempt to what? Give her another chance? Show her she had disappointed them with her answer?

The panel member responded with condescension. “The public. You know, there are many people who are interested in what we do. We have neighbours. They have views on decisions we make, decisions you will be responsible for delivering.”

“Of course. I would never assume otherwise. I simply consider the public in a separate category from ‘stakeholders.’ Don’t we often say public engagement and stakeholder engagement and mean two separate things?” She hesitated. “Besides, one must be careful about whether someone who is a member of the public represents others, say other neighbours, or only themselves. If the latter, how much of a stake do they have?” She paused again, then closed her open lips. Time to stop digging. The next person on the panel moved on to the next question.

Later, rejected, she wondered why she hadn’t tried to take the opportunity to mention her extensive experience of public engagement. Or to turn the question on its head and ask them why they felt that there was no difference between members of the public and other, organisational stakeholders they dealt with. But she hadn’t.

Public engagement, public consultation, public transparency and access, whatever it is called or consists of; it is a tricky topic. Whether it is a question of theory at an interview or reality when a so-called member of the public is on the other end of a phone line or stands before you, the validity of demand and response is always in question.

Everyone is a member of the public in some contexts or in relation to some situations or organisations’ actions. A stakeholder is often defined by professional standing or recognised representation or organisational participation. A member of the public is the absence of such trappings. This doesn’t necessarily mean the views or relationship with such a person are insignificant or unimportant or invalid. It does mean that action, reaction and interaction are different. Procedures are often different. Sometimes, when members of the public are the target for developing a relationship, they are hard to find or reach.

But how can one think of all this under pressure and explain it all without hesitancy in an interview?

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