When you were younger – and maybe even still – your parents probably asked you “what do you want for your birthday?” They did this for a few reasons, but primarily to avoid the look of disappointment you would likely have (or the fit you might throw…) when they guessed what you wanted and got it wrong. Your parents wanted to be sure to give you what you want so that you would actually enjoy and use their gift. When we want to be sure that something we are doing will meet the needs of the person we are doing it for, we ask. That principle goes beyond birthdays into our daily lives, our work, and (I hope) you guessed it – data!

Engaging stakeholders on their data needs is a key way to ensure that state data systems move away from their old, compliance-driven use towards a service-oriented system that serves user needs. States should start right away in pursuing stakeholder engagement around key data tools, like high school feedback reports. To ice the cake, states can embed stakeholder engagement into their standard operating procedures and the culture of state education agencies; doing so will act as a lever to ensure that state data systems continuously meet user needs across various strands of work.

Now you’re sarcastically thinking: “Great idea, Brennan. Just ask people what they want, no big deal.” Fear not. I have a few action steps for you as well. In order to effectively engage stakeholders, state policy makers and practitioners should work to set goals, define targeted stakeholders, pursue effective communication strategies, and gather and react to user feedback – the four key pieces of stakeholder engagement.

Set goals – You would never start working on something without first defining why you’re doing it and what you want out of it, right? The same goes for stakeholder engagement; start by determining what you hope to accomplish by asking users about their needs.

Define targeted stakeholders – Different stakeholder groups need different things, and not every stakeholder group will be impacted by every project. Part of stakeholder engagement is being sure you’re reaching out to the right people.

Effective Communication – Just as different stakeholders have different needs, we also need to use different messages and communications strategies to reach them effectively. Don’t forget to use multiple outlets – from twitter to formal letters – and that messages need to be delivered multiple times to really sink in.

Gather and react to feedback – This is the most important step! When you ask people for their help, it is important to listen to what they have to say, use their feedback, and explain why you’ve decided to pursue the course you’ve taken. Showing stakeholders that you seek out and listen to their opinions is a key piece of building trust across the education community and the movement from compliance to service.

The state of Tennessee, in partnership with SCORE, has set a good example of engaging stakeholders – in this case, asking educators their thoughts on the new teacher evaluation system. Other states should look to Tennessee to see how they use teachers’ feedback, and to see how the state uses this process as a first step in creating a state-wide culture of stakeholder engagement.