In recent months several clients have sought my advice on whether and how to set up an advisory group – a U.S. factory negotiating a “good neighbor agreement” with neighborhood activists; a refinery in Asia looking for a venue to consult with national and international environmental NGOs and other critics; a worldwide manufacturer of nutritional additives facing accusations that its products are useless or even dangerous; and a trade association hoping to ameliorate public concerns about shale gas “fracking.”

In all four cases one of the client’s main motives for setting up an advisory group was its sense that too many stakeholders had minimal trust in government regulators. “The government is making sure we operate safely” had become almost a laugh line, and so an alternative accountability mechanism was needed. The client thought that an advisory group made up directly of stakeholders might make it more credibly accountable in the minds of critics and skeptics. I agreed.

Purposes of Advisory Groups

Providing a credible accountability mechanism is one key purpose of advisory groups. Stakeholders can see if the advisory group is holding your feet to the fire or not; they can see if the group is forcing you to be more responsive to stakeholder concerns than you wanted to be. Whether your concerned stakeholders are employees, neighbors, customers, or activists, they tend to worry less if they see that an advisory group is helping to keep you under control.

There are at least five other important purposes:

  1. Advisory groups are a conduit for stakeholder outrage and a venue for its expression. Whoever is upset with you can speak out at an advisory group meeting, or maybe even join the group. Just as a pressure relief valve on a tank of gas can help keep the tank from exploding by venting some gas, an advisory group can help keep the workforce or neighborhood from exploding by venting some outrage. (Of course it’s not enough just to let people vent; you need to show that you hear them and are being responsive. That’s number four below.)
  2. Advisory groups are a source of intelligence, an early warning system for stakeholder outrage. They give your organization a heads-up about how many people are upset with you, who they are, how upset they are, and what’s upsetting them.
  3. Advisory groups are a two-way communications medium. They occupy a middle ground between your organization and its stakeholders, and pass along information in both directions – helping you understand your stakeholders’ viewpoints and helping them understand yours.
  4. Advisory groups are a venue for visibly giving in. Once your management has decided to do something that stakeholders are demanding, it needs to explain why it is making the change. Crediting its own virtue lacks humility (and credibility); crediting its most hostile critic may feel too humiliating to bear. Crediting an advisory group is a good middle ground.
  5. Advisory groups give good advice. Really. My clients rarely start out expecting to get valuable substantive input from their advisory groups, but they almost always end up getting some – ideas they never thought of and ideas they discarded prematurely. (Of course advisory groups have a lot of infeasible ideas as well.)

Advisory groups can be local, regional, or national. They can be made up of employees, neighbors, customers, or activists (or some of each). And they can focus on an individual facility, an entire company, or lots of companies (an industry, an airshed or watershed, etc.).

What they all have in common is that they give advice to someone. This has two key corollaries.

First, the “someone” shouldn’t have any power over the group (even gentle, beneficent power), and shouldn’t be a member of the group. You are your advisory group’s customer, the recipient of its advice. Act like a customer, not a boss or a member.

And second, the group shouldn’t have any power over the “someone” – influence yes, but not formal power. Of course some members of your advisory group (union reps, for example) may have formal power in other venues. But advisory groups give advice. If they can compel you to accept their advice, or to bargain toward a compromise, then they’re regulators or negotiating partners, not advisory groups.

There are two key decisions to be made when setting up an advisory group – who’s in it and what its prerogatives are.

Who’s in the Advisory Group

The vast majority of advisory groups have fixed memberships. Individuals or organizations are appointed or elected to fixed terms. The chemical industry’s Community Advisory Panels (CAPs), for example, are sometimes composed of two representatives from each constituency: two religious leaders, two educational leaders, two environmentalists, two ethnic minorities, etc. Or a company’s worker safety advisory group may have one member from each shift, or each building, or each job category.

The problem with fixed-membership advisory groups is that they tend to stultify. The experience of sitting on your advisory group is intrinsically confidence-building. Members learn how tough your problems are and how hard you’re working to address them. Little by little, to their surprise (and yours) and maybe to their chagrin, they may lose the hostile edge they initially brought to the group.

That’s an achievement, part of the magic of advisory groups. But it’s also a problem. Stakeholders without a seat at the table are still upset with you, and the advisory group no longer adequately represents their concerns. Advisory groups should be conduits for stakeholder outrage, not buffers between outraged stakeholders and your management. Members who lose interest or get too comfortable with your management’s position before their term is over end up occupying a seat that could better be filled by a newcomer who’s still passionately unhappy about something (and perhaps additionally unhappy about being excluded from the advisory group).

At the other extreme are fluid-membership advisory groups. Suppose the group admitted anyone who wanted to join for as long as s/he wanted to stay. That’s not an option for a group with formal power; you can’t negotiate with different folks every month. Even for a group that’s purely advisory, such total fluidity has obvious downsides:

  • The group may get too big and unwieldy; it may even briefly turn into a mass meeting when a big issue arises and scores of people suddenly want to “join.” That’s okay for the venting of outrage, but it’s not very effective for a workgroup whose members actually debate and learn.
  • The group is endlessly forced to back up whenever newcomers raise a concern that old-timers have already settled to their satisfaction.
  • The group’s process is bound to be chaotic, with newcomers unknowingly violating norms the group had previously established.

I don’t find these disadvantages as problematic as my clients usually do.

  • Unless there’s a big pressing issue, scores of people rarely vie to join an advisory group that carries no particular cachet and that they can always join next month instead. And when there is a big pressing issue, an unwieldy advisory-group-turned-mass-meeting is probably a better response than a small meeting with a semi-secret, semi-captive, fixed-membership advisory group.
  • If there are people in the community or the workforce who aren’t aware that the issue has been resolved or aren’t satisfied with the resolution, revisiting it is probably wiser than letting your advisory group get and stay way out ahead of the stakeholders whose concerns it should be reflecting. And it’s good for your organization to have the advisory group’s old-timers bringing the newcomers up to speed, instead of leaving you to do it yourself in some other venue.
  • On balance, chaotic is probably better than stultified. A heartfelt discussion that fully reflects stakeholder concerns is a higher priority than orderly, pleasant meetings.

The wisest course is somewhere in the middle. Set up your fixed-membership advisory group with short, staggered terms, so new members are a frequent source of refreshing disruption. Put new members through an orientation course to reduce socialization time and deter those whose interest is casual. Allow members to quit before their term is up without pressure to stay if their reason for quitting is that they’re bored or satisfied – but try to get them to stay if they’re quitting because they’re unhappy with the way things are going. Don’t let former members rejoin until they’ve been off the group for a while. Create a role halfway between member and audience for people who could productively join the group while it is focusing on “their” issue. Make sure even the audience role isn’t passive, with ample opportunity for non-members to ask questions, raise issues, and interact with members.

Should even your most extreme critics get to join your advisory group? Yes. Maybe the other members will moderate their extremism. Maybe the other members will recoil at their extremism. Either way, you’re better off with the extremists inside the room than marching around outside. As President Lyndon Johnson once famously said about loose cannon FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover: “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.”

Extremists often look for ways to con companies into excluding them from advisory groups. In many cases they’d rather be outside the tent, complaining bitterly that you won’t let them in. So keep offering to let them in, with no strings attached. “Of course you can pursue two strategies in parallel if you wish – in court trying to shut us down while you’re also on the advisory group trying to improve our operations.” Force extremists to choose between the risk of looking marginalized if they stay out and the risk of looking coopted if they come in. This can’t be a fraud. You have to really want them in. But if they decide to stay out, let the onus be on them.

Advisory Group Prerogatives

Remember, your advisory group doesn’t get to decide anything for your company or agency. It has no power over you (and you have no power over it). So what does it have power over?

A properly set-up advisory group normally has five prerogatives (or responsibilities – they are both).

First, it has the power to investigate. Your advisory group can look into things. It can ask questions of you and others. It probably can’t compel answers – but you have reason to provide answers if you possibly can … and, as a rule, so do your worst enemies.

Second, it has the power to publicize. Your advisory group can tell everybody what it learned from its investigations, and what it thinks about what it learned. (And it can tell everybody which questions you refused to answer.) There will probably be times when you or others agree to give the advisory group certain information only on condition that it not reveal what it was told, at least not for a while. That’s okay on occasion. But a confidential advisory group – one that never or almost never reveals what it has learned and what it thinks – is worse than useless; it will arouse more outrage than it vents. Advisory group meetings should be routinely open to outsiders, including the media. Your group should go into “executive session” only when there’s an obviously good reason to do so, and should routinely post its minutes for all to see.

Third, it has the power to transmit information. Advisory groups should be conduits for two-way communications. They should take back what they’ve learned from your company or agency to their constituents (and everybody else), explaining what you said as well as expressing their agreement or disagreement. Just as important, they should be open to concerns that are being expressed by their constituents (and everybody else). Whether they share those concerns or not, they should tell you what concerns they are hearing.

Fourth, advisory groups give advice. This is their putative principal purpose: to tell you what they think you should do. It’s important – but no more important than investigating, publicizing, and transmitting information. And of course the advisory function is a lot more powerful when it’s accompanied by the power to investigate, publicize, and transmit. Advisory groups don’t just tell you what they think you should do. They tell you why, based on the information they have unearthed and the constituent concerns they have heard. And they use their power to publicize to tell everybody else what they advised you to do, and how you responded to the advice. They can’t make you take their advice, but they can sure make you answerable for your decision to take it or reject it.

Fifth, advisory groups manage themselves. This, too, is a core prerogative/responsibility of advisory groups. My clients are endlessly asking me questions about the details of advisory group practice. Should they have an outside facilitator or run their own meetings? How often should they meet, and where – onsite or offsite? When and how should the minutes be distributed? Should members get paid, or at least get expense reimbursement, or might that look like a bribe? The best answer to these and hundreds of other questions, I think, is “none of your business.” Let the advisory group decide. You can help. You can gently suggest reasons why one approach might be superior to another. You can certainly offer to cover the group’s costs, so financial considerations don’t unduly constrain its answers to these questions. But you’re not going to let your advisory group run your company or agency. Don’t you try to run your advisory group.

One final piece of advice about advisory groups: Don’t let your advisory group preempt other vehicles for interacting with stakeholders and hearing their concerns. In the U.S., the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) governs the behavior of the 1,000-odd federal agency advisory groups. Various provisions of FACA aimed at preventing agencies from going behind their advisory committees’ backs end up inhibiting their other interactions with stakeholders. My agency clients often tell me (with barely hidden pleasure) that it might be illegal for them to talk to any stakeholder anywhere other than at a formal, announced-in-advance, open-to-the-public advisory committee meeting.

Similarly, my corporate clients sometimes tell me that a particular activist organization refuses to attend advisory group meetings but is willing to meet separately with the company. “So meet with them separately,” I respond. “Absolutely not!” the company insists, the smirk just below the surface. “We set up the advisory group for that purpose, and we wouldn’t want to do anything to interfere with its prerogatives.”

Preventing you from dialoguing with stakeholders in some other venue is not an advisory group prerogative.

Copyright © 2011 by Peter M. Sandman