Engagement lessons in the shift to clean energy

The word engagement is increasingly bandied around by companies. But what does this mean in practice? As we shift to clean energy, it is vital that this process is fair. This is why Sustainability First has been working with National Grid on their Fair Transition project, engaging with and listening to stakeholders and citizens in a series of workshops. 

For National Grid, a fair transition means: “everyone should be able to benefit from the clean energy future, no matter who or where you are, your income or background. No one should be left behind in the transition to a net zero and climate-resilient future.” 

This blog focuses on how we engaged with members of the public and some key lessons we learned. We got to see firsthand what people wanted from National Grid and what they saw as opportunities or challenges. At the heart of the workshops was the issue of fairness. People don’t always have a clear idea about what is fair, but they instinctively know what is unfair.  

Who to engage

We started by considering who we wanted to hear from. The answer was people who are not typically involved in decision-making on energy matters, so we could gain real life experience from people who do not make policies. We commissioned a recruitment agency to find 40 individuals, across England and Wales, from a variety of backgrounds, ages, locations, socio-economic groups and ethnicities. We ensured groups who are not always heard in policy debates, such as people with disabilities, were ‘overrepresented’. In the event we had 33 participants who did all three workshops and one person attended two.

All participants were paid for their time, and we added an extra incentive for those who stayed for all three workshops, to ensure continuity. We offered payment if needed to pay for carers.

How to be accessible

We wanted to make the workshops open to people who had day jobs or who had children/other commitments. We ran the three workshops over three weeks on a Tuesday evening from 6.30-8.30pm allowing people to finish a working day without running too late. We offered financial help to those who needed care, for children or other individuals. 

This relatively short time slot meant we had a lot of questions to cover in a short space of time. We mitigated this by having a large number of smaller break-out groups. We used professional facilitators to ensure the breakout discussions were inclusive and focused and participants felt confident sharing their views. We explored various online platforms for recording ideas and note-taking but opted for the simplest format possible. One individual from National Grid joined each breakout group and was tasked with note-taking, capturing the discussion in a simple shared word document (which all facilitators and participants could view if they wanted).

The workshop process had to be simple and easy for participants. By reducing how much contact the participants had with technology, the lower the chances of people dropping out or not being able to fully participate. Our IT specialist put people into breakout rooms for smaller discussions. He gave people a five-minute warning before the discussion time ended, and brought them back into the general discussion. This simplicity was invaluable in helping the events run smoothly. Subsequently, participating required very little digital knowledge - all individuals had to do was click on a link to join online and speak freely.

Ensuring rich conversation

Effective engagement requires clarity.  You need to know specific questions you want answered that can inform practical action. Where discussion time is limited, this requires you to prioritise. Just as the IT was straight forward, we spent time iterating the exact questions and expressing them in simple language in the agendas. We developed a theme for each discussion, questions were open, yet had clear boundaries. [These were: How can energy costs be shared fairly?, How can National Grid support people? How might National Grid support affected communities?] 

We also developed briefings so that participants had a basic understanding of the context of discussions before the workshops. These background materials were about how the energy system works and how new energy infrastructure is built. We stripped out technical terms or jargon as much as possible and sense checked our material with energy specialists. We commissioned Easy Read versions of our documents. This proved vital in getting to the essence of what we were saying and forced us to be clear about our questions. The result was accessible, clearly written and produced and rich, conclusive discussions. One participant said: “documents were clear and effective to help with the preparation for the following session”. 

 Ensuring momentum

After each workshop, Sustainability First ran a debrief the morning after the workshop with the facilitators, who specialise in engagement but are not energy professionals. This helped us stay united as a team and make any adjustments to improve the workshops. In particular, we shared ideas about how to ensure everyone in the workshops had a say, and no one person or view dominated in the different breakout groups. One attendee said: “The small group discussions allowed for more in-depth conversations”.

One of the more intangible aspects of the workshops that worked well was the tone of the events – while we had a National Grid senior employee presenting, the events did not feel overly corporate. Instead, we tried to make the evening workshops genuinely open and accepting of different views and enjoyable. And we gave ample space and time for people to talk. There was a willingness to listen and hear what people had to say and to admit when there was no obvious answer.

In summary:

  • We recruited people not normally involved in decision making to have a richer discussion using people’s lived experience
  • Both pre-read materials and the Easy Read documents were accessible and clear. These underwent multiple iterations; we tested them with lay individuals and specialists
  • We made the process of attending very easy with limited IT knowledge required
  • We listened to and recorded different views

Make it open 

Make it clear 

Make it easy 


Hearing and including multiple views is not only fair, it also helps to make better decision-making possible, because ultimately it answers the needs and wishes of more people. Charities like Sustainability First can play a key role in climate action by creating a bridge between citizens and large companies. Meaningful dialogue that makes complex issues accessible can help to increase knowledge and awareness amongst the public. Equally it can help companies to more deeply scrutinise their own plans and operations to increase social value, environmental performance, and broaden their role in society – something that investors in Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) are eager see, measure, and quantify. 

If you’re a company grappling with the challenges of meaningful engagement with the public, or reviewing your ESG and corporate responsibility plans, get in touch, Sustainability First could help: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

With thanks to Civil Society Consulting for their role in facilitating the workshops.