Are more stakeholders better?

Eleanor Sterling (biography)

Community member post by Eleanor Sterling

Participatory modeling, by definition, involves engaging “stakeholders” in decision making. But determining which stakeholders to involve, when, and how is a delicate balance. Early writings on stakeholder engagement methods represent engagement along a linear continuum from non-participatory to citizen-controlled decision making.

Non-participatory methods could include stakeholders passively receiving pre-set information, with no input to content or delivery (eg., public information campaigns). Fully collaborative partnerships (eg., participatory action research projects) involve co-creation of knowledge, co-identification of issues, and co-framing of and implementation of solutions.

Arnstein (1969) called attention to the potential for manipulatory engagement, noting that in these instances engagement is about powerholders creating the illusion of genuine engagement, for instance through positioning key stakeholders as high profile figureheads who, in reality, have no say in decision-making.

The figure below shows the eight stages of participation as per Arnstein (1969) (depicted in the original paper as rungs on a ladder), see also the blog post by Katrin Prager on the difference between co-creation and participation.

(Adapted from Arnstein 1969)

This overall framing is normative, with the non-participation end of the spectrum “bad” and the full engagement side considered “good”. However, experience in engaging diverse stakeholders shows that it can be difficult to bound the list of interested parties. Further, engaging all stakeholders using the same methods at all stages of an initiative can be cumbersome and prevent progress.

Work with colleagues on stakeholder engagement in biodiversity conservation (Sterling et al., 2017) shows that different methods might be used at different times of a project stage to best target the needs of stakeholders and organizers. As illustrated in the figure below, participation is an ongoing and iterative, non-linear exchange with varying groups of stakeholders engaged in dynamic ways across the life cycle of a project or activity.

The intensity of engagement increases as stakeholders move towards the center. The central square represents stakeholders and organizers who provide project framing and guidance that is central to decision-making throughout the cycle. Other shapes represent diverse stakeholder groups who are engaged at different times and degrees of intensity. In this hypothetical example, the square could be local elders who co-lead the project, the circle could represent a women’s civic engagement group, the heptagon could represent a researcher, and the triangle a neighboring community.


Intensity of engagement for different stakeholder groups over project life cycle (illustration by Nadav Gazit, from Sterling et al., 2017)

The potential for engagement fatigue, in which involvement in a project has a negative impact on the stakeholder, is another reason to consider a more dynamic approach to engagement. However, this is a multifaceted issue, as research has shown particular types of engagement, such as when stakeholders are consulted but not actively involved in decision-making, are more likely to result in fatigue.

What has your experience been in engaging stakeholders? Have you developed any effective ways to identify and differentiate the various stakeholders relevant to your project?

Arnstein, S. R. (1969). A Ladder of Citizen Participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35, 4: 216-224.

To find out more:
Sterling, E. J., Betley, E., Sigouin, A., Gomez, A., Toomey, A., Cullman, G., Malone, C.,
Pekor, A., Arengo, F., Blair, M., Filardi, C., Landrigan, K. and Porzecanski, A. L. (2017).
Assessing the evidence for stakeholder engagement in biodiversity conservation.
Biological Conservation, 209: 159-71. Online (DOI): 10.1016/j.biocon.2017.02.008

Biography: Eleanor Sterling PhD is Chief Conservation Scientist at the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History. Building on her interdisciplinary training and experience, she bridges biological and socio-cultural perspectives and integrates them into management strategies for integrated ecological and human systems. She has over 30 years of field research and community outreach experience in both terrestrial and marine systems around the globe and is considered a world authority on the aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascarensis), a nocturnal lemur found only in Madagascar. She focuses her current work on the intersection between biodiversity, culture, and languages and explores the factors influencing resilience from a biocultural approach. She is a member of the Participatory Modeling Pursuit which is part of the theme Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

Two lessons for early involvement of stakeholders in research

Community member post by Obasanjo Oyedele, Martin Atela and Ayo Ojebode

Obasanjo Oyedele (biography)

A fundamental principle for conducting research that is easily put to use by stakeholders is to involve them in the research process as early as possible. But how can the inertia and lack of interest that stakeholders often have at this stage be overcome?

We provide two lessons from our experience of involving stakeholders as early as the research launch.

Martin Atela (biography)

The research project

The project, part of the Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) programme, was launched in July 2017. It investigates new forms of social and political action focusing on the Bring Back Our Girls (#BBOG) movement, which sprang up over the abduction of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by terrorists in 2014. It is conducted by the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research, based in Kenya, in collaboration with Nigerian partners, and funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID).

Ayo Ojebode (biography)

The launch event

The launch of the research project took around three months to plan and involved several hours of Skype calls and many consultation visits, with lengthy travel. In the end, about 50 people attended, including civil society groups (especially the #BBOG leadership), religious leaders, the press, and politicians, as well as academics.

The launch was preceded by a two and a half day workshop where stakeholders and the research team discussed the research questions, identified the most appropriate methodology to tackle them (specifically in the context of Nigeria), reviewed ethical issues, and agreed on an appropriate research-to-policy plan.

Lesson 1: Your research is your business, not the policy actors’ priority

While it is true that researchers are trying to understand a problem and policy actors are trying to solve that problem, it is naïve to expect immediate enthusiasm for research from policy actors.

Our experience was that policy actors, including the media and civil society, do not readily share in the vision and excitement of the researchers. We had to offer tons of explaining, persuading and reminding in order to get policy actors, especially politicians, interested in the project. To expect policy actors to jump into a project just because it is topical and important is to set oneself up for disappointment.

Overcoming inertia from policy actors

How did we overcome the discouraging cold shoulder phase? We, in the words of Oliver Goldsmith, had to stoop to conquer. We migrated quickly from a “partnership” mode to an “at-your-service” mode.

First, we selected a launch location that was the most convenient for the key policy actors, namely Abuja, the capital of Nigeria.

Second, we worked with an influential Abuja-based civil society organisation – the Centre for Democracy and Development – as a co-convenor. This proved useful in overcoming the ‘outsider’ tag and in quickly mobilising stakeholders who understood the local context and could enrich discussions during the meeting.

Third, we used our personal and professional networks with the press.

Finally, we adopted an informal rather than a formal approach to nearly every aspect of the planning. While each research team has to decide what works for their context, our experience suggests that informal networks are indispensable in overcoming policy actor apathy.

Lesson 2: A cold shoulder doesn’t mean a dead end

After the initial cold shoulder, policy actors often warm up to the research idea and it’s at this point that you need to open up space for proactive engagement.

Mobilising policy actors for the Abuja launch (getting them to give their word to attend and to actually attend the launch) was a daunting task. However, in the end, we were almost overwhelmed by their enthusiasm.

During the launch, after we spent some time explaining the study focus and rationale, participants asked questions that opened up discussions alerting researchers to divergent, yet critical, views on the study topic. Nevertheless, in the end, we were able to not just excite them about the project, but to also get the commitment of many of them to support the project and consider using the outcomes.

Nothing illustrates the importance of perseverance better than this situation – where often, researchers experience inertia, almost akin to apathy, then overcome this and finally find themselves confronted by an enthusiastic audience.

Proactive engagement

Although it was unintentional, inviting some of the policy actors to the pre-launch workshop allowed us to use their experience to choose the methods for the study. This initial engagement also provided the stakeholders with time to think through the study and its objectives. The benefits of this became obvious at the launch event, as they continued discussions started at the workshop and brought in new perspectives.


Our experience affirms that policy-engaged research should involve policy actors right from the start. However, a context-sensitive combination of communication skills and a determination to overcome the hurdles of stakeholder apathy are needed to recruit policy actors who are committed to a research project.

What has your experience been? Do our lessons resonate with yours?

Biography: Obasanjo Joseph Oyedele PhD is a climate change communication specialist and lecturer at the Department of Communication and Language Arts, University of Ibadan, Nigeria. His research interests in media and communication straddle development, climate change, environment, agriculture, politics, health, and risk. He is a research assistant for the research on social and political action in Nigeria, the launch of which is reported in this blog postEmail:

Biography: Martin Atela PhD is the Research and Policy Manager at Partnership for African and Social Governance Research (PASGR) in Nairobi, Kenya. His work focuses on evidence to policy, health systems strengthening and governance. He is the Programme Manager of the research on social and political action in Nigeria, the launch of which is reported in this blog postEmail:

Biography: Ayo Ojebode PhD is Professor of Applied Communication in the Department of Communication and Language Arts, University of Ibadan, Nigeria. His research interests are community communication; community governance; new media; and political communication. He is the team leader of the research on social and political action in Nigeria, the launch of which is reported in this blog post. E-mail:

Why we should not ignore interdisciplinarity’s critics

Rick Szostak (biography)

Community member post by Rick Szostak

A handful of recent books have made surprising and misguided critiques of interdisciplinarity. How should interdisciplinarians respond? It is tempting simply to ignore such works. As academics, we too often encounter publications that are sadly ignorant of relevant literatures. Yet it seems to me that there are a couple of key reasons not to ignore them.

First, there is clearly an audience for these works, or they would not be published. Continue reading

Epistemological obstacles to interdisciplinary research

Community member post by Evelyn Brister

Evelyn Brister (biography)

What causes interdisciplinary collaborations to default to the standard frameworks and methods of a single discipline, leaving collaborators feeling like they aren’t being taken seriously, or that what they’ve brought to the project has been left on the table, ignored and underappreciated?

Sometimes it is miscommunication, but sometimes it is that collaborators disagree. And sometimes disagreements are both fundamental and intractable.

Often, these disagreements can be traced back to different epistemological frameworks. Epistemological frameworks are beliefs about how particular disciplines conceive of what it is they investigate, how to investigate it, what counts as sufficient evidence, and why the knowledge they produce matters. Continue reading

Let’s stop measuring and start improving

Community member post by Louise Locock

Louise Locock (biography)

When we’re trying to improve the experience of health care, social care and other services users, is there a fast, rigorous way to include their perspectives that doesn’t involve repeatedly collecting new data from them and their families?

Measuring, understanding and improving people’s experience of services has become a priority. There is now an international focus (at least in the West) on person-centred care. The English National Health Service has led the way among health systems by introducing the first nationally mandated patient survey.

Despite the strong political and organisational focus on improving care, reports of unsatisfactory experience continue in even the best funded care systems. Continue reading

Two audiences and five aims of action researchers

Community member post by Hilary Bradbury

Hilary Bradbury (biography)

Do action researchers have something to offer to the contemporary and urgent question of how to respond to complex real-world problems? I think so.

Action researchers, often working in inter-disciplinary settings, hold in mind that technical, practical and emancipatory goals of action research require us to develop facility in communicating with two audiences: the ‘local’ practitioners and the ‘cosmopolitan’ community of scholars.

Let’s start with the latter. The cosmopolitans are motivated by the question of what, if anything, can be contributed to what scholars already know. As a result these academic colleagues usually privilege the written medium exclusively. The local audience, however, is not served when action researchers write a manuscript intended for scholarly peers! Continue reading