Chapter 4—Engaging Stakeholders: Bringing Everyone Along

Early on, an education agency should pull together a broad range of stakeholders in a collaborative effort to define the organization's LDS vision. Because a wide array of groups have a stake in the system, this early stage is critical for two primary reasons: it increases the usefulness and relevance of the system to users; and it increases the visibility and use of, and demand for, the system across the education community.

Without diverse input from a range of perspectives, the resulting system may not be useful to all who should benefit from it. And if the system is not relevant to certain groups, it will not be used. Engaging users early in the design process increases the likelihood they will value and utilize the resulting system and, since they were given the opportunity in the design stages to ask for certain information, it will hopefully be more relevant to their efforts to improve student outcomes. Involving stakeholders in the LDS design process also serves as the first step in marketing the system (see chapter 12). This process educates users and gets them thinking about the system's potential while spreading excitement, increasing buy-in, and fostering lasting executive and grassroots support for the project.

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Mix it up

Enlist stakeholders who vary in terms of:
  • interest in the project;
  • expertise (e.g., business and technology specialists);
  • responsibilities (e.g., data collectors and data providers);
  • level of government (e.g., state, regional, or district);
  • geography;
  • benefits to be gained; and
  • perspective (e.g., insiders and outsiders).

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See the forest and the trees

In addition to talking about data assets and needs, leaders should carefully emphasize the LDS goals: first, to provide education practitioners with the information they most need and want; second, to inform policy development and resource allocation; and, third, to ease accountability and reporting burdens. The culture of data collection for compliance must be overcome and stakeholders should focus on how the data can help them improve education from the bottom up as well as from the top down.

A Model for Engagement

An effective model for bringing stakeholders together involves creating several individual standing committees and stakeholder groups that hold periodic information-gathering meetings. The number of groups necessary to accommodate all interested parties, and the means of bringing participants together (in one central location, at regional sites, or via telephone or online conferences), will depend largely on the size of the organization, the geographic size of the state or district, and available resources.

In these meetings, participants should identify their data concerns, define needs, and pinpoint aspects of the "here" system that need improvement. The groups may study other systems, learning what other agencies' data systems look like and how they are being used. Such analysis can provide examples that can be used as models, starting points, or outcomes to avoid (see chapter 8).

In addition to these meetings, consider using a variety of information-gathering strategies such as in-person and virtual focus groups, interviews, roundtable discussions, or paper or online surveys (Wilson and Nunn 2007). Also, take advantage of already established groups that may be able to help define LDS requirements and facilitate communication. If there are relevant task forces, working groups, or data-user groups already in existence, for example, ask them to carve out some time for LDS discussions.

A representative from each stakeholder group should also serve on a core committee that should meet frequently to share findings from each group's meetings. This core committee should play a continuing role in overseeing and facilitating communication about the LDS planning process, and in fostering a "living system" by ensuring ongoing feedback on how to design and improve the project so it meets stakeholder needs.

Innovation requires everyone to step out of the box and consider how the system can work for them and what types of information would help them be more successful in their jobs. Participants should be encouraged to be bold and creative in their suggestions. Create a collaborative environment where all stakeholders feel comfortable contributing as equals.

Who to Engage

The stakeholders invited to contribute to the early design process should vary in terms of their interest in the project as well as their expertise, responsibilities, geography, and the ways in which the system can benefit them. Include insiders familiar with education data and the workings of the agency, as well as outsiders who can provide a fresh perspective. Invite both the tech savvy and those who know the business end of the enterprise. In addition, involve those who collect and provide the data as well as those who use them.

Stakeholder engagement should also acknowledge the need for a change in "data culture" in the education community. While data systems have historically been built primarily for compliance, the recent shift of emphasis towards using data to inform decisionmaking, improve educational strategies, and enhance student learning requires that these systems take local educators' needs into consideration. For these reasons, education agencies should also be sure to include, in addition to state-level personnel, ample representation from schools and districts in the planning process.

Contact other agencies, organizations, or other potential stakeholders who may be interested in the system and invite them to participate. Include as many groups as possible at first, and let participants decide whether to continue attending meetings. This will give everyone an introduction to the project and allow anyone with a special interest in the endeavor to become more involved. A word of caution: while it is beneficial to include a broad collection of stakeholders through these planning stages, there is such a thing as "too much" input and such inclusiveness might risk hampering the project. Setting goals, ground rules, and strategies early on for handling ideas efficiently will help keep the process moving and on track.

Table 1 lists the types of stakeholders that might be enlisted in the planning stages of the LDS project.