Social licence: What is it? How do you gain and maintain it?

by | Feb 28, 2022

Social licence is critical to your success when delivering a project or working within an organisation that is publicly facing like local government. But what exactly does this mean and why does it matter? More importantly, how do you gain and maintain a social licence to ensure the best outcomes for your project or organisation?

What is a social licence?

In a nutshell, a social licence refers to the level of acceptance or approval that stakeholders extend to a project, organisation or industry. In the local government space, this could relate to the level of buy-in for a major infrastructure project like a new pool. Or it could be the acceptance of proposed changes to planning controls to support housing growth.

There are three components required to establish a social licence. These require continuous cultivation and nurturing to ensure a social licence is ongoing. These elements matter based on perceived or real issues.

1. Legitimacy

Defined by how well the individual or organisation play by the ‘rules of the game’. These rules are the legal, social, cultural, formal or informal norms of each stakeholder.

2. Credibility

Defined by the capacity of the individual or organisation to provide stakeholders with true and clear information and fulfil any commitments made.

3. Trust

Defined by the willingness to be vulnerable to the actions of another. This can take time and effort to create but can result in a high-quality relationship.

What’s so important about having a social licence?

In recent decades there has been a growing expectation and awareness that all organisations should be socially responsible. This expectation has developed from the trust of communities or stakeholders eroding over time. This trust has the potential to make or break projects leading to individuals and organisations being ineffective in realising their goals. Developing a social licence seeks to repair and rebuild this trust. Social licence can therefore be hard to win and easy to lose.

How to create and maintain a social licence?

Developing a social licence is an ongoing process and takes time. Here are some top tips:

1. Identify your stakeholders

Don’t just assume you know your stakeholders. Stakeholders may include not only those externally and also but also internal people in your organisation. They can change, between a project or organisation. So, set aside time to clearly identify who your stakeholders are for your project or issue.

2. Understand your stakeholder needs

Stakeholder needs often correlate to their desired level of involvement. While some stakeholders may just want to be informed, some will want to be actively engaged and may become champions of your project. Others will need to be informed on an adhoc basis. Understanding your stakeholder needs, can make developing engagement methods a lot easier.

3. Harness your community champions

They are out there, you just have to find and engage them. These are the individuals who have the time, skills, dedication, interest and empathy to defend, support and promote your project. It is important to remember that they may not be the loudest community member or the one that takes the most of your time. If you can harness them, they will need open communication with you, support and possibly training to ensure they can champion your social licence goals.

4. Timing is everything

This cannot be understated.  Timing is key to gain and maintain a social licence. For example, when issues arise, it is important to be on the front foot to avoid being perceived as ignoring the issue. If the issue is relevant to your stakeholders, hiding from it is a sure way to damage your social licence.

5. Close the consultation loop

It is common for projects to have extensive consultation processes at the beginning of the project, only to leave stakeholders hanging afterwards. Closing the consultation loop may vary from ensuring stakeholders know how their input is being used to providing updates on project stages as needed. Closing the consultation is critical as it can support your social licence for future projects.

What does a successful social licence look like?

Last year, we produced a community-led master plan for Warden Head – a project with a high number of stakeholders and public interest that was driven by a local, dedicated community group. Once the master plan was completed and funding secured, we encouraged the State government (who own the site) to undertake stakeholder mapping.

This process led to the identification of the dedicated a community group as the ‘Promoters’ who had a passionate stake in the project, being the group that secured the funding for the implementation of the master plan. They needed to be extensively involved in the approvals process and upcoming construction phase to implement the master plan and ensure a positive outcome for the project. 

In summary

A social licence may feel quite abstract but it can have real-world consequences if it is not cultivated or appreciated. More and more individuals and organisations are recognising and investing resources into maintaining a social licence. Local government is no different. In many cases, creating a positive social licence can produce greater and ongoing benefits beyond the actual delivery of a project or resolution of an issue. 

Contact Cinnamon Dunsford, Principal Planner, to discuss your next project and how to establish a social licence from the start:


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