By Obasanjo Oyedele, Martin Atela and Ayo Ojebode
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.
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).
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.
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 post. Email: email@example.com
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 post. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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: email@example.com
15 thoughts on “Two lessons for early involvement of stakeholders in research”
Thank you, Ayo, Martin and Obasanjo, for this short-but-instructive piece. Although I was part of the whole story narrated here, reading through this blog further broadened my knowledge on the involvement of stakeholders in research. The blog has also sensitised me to some activities and actions we took at the event which most of the participants probably did not consider to be significant. My take-home lesson from this blog is that as researchers, we must be persistently persuasive and be convinced that with relentless efforts, stakeholders will be ready to listen to us and get involved in our research; we must set out early enough in our attempt to involve the stakeholders.
Thanks, Oje! At some point, we should meet to harvest some of these fruits of retrospection as you have shared here.
This was great. Your team knew what you wanted from the start. Engaging them from the start made them to appreciate the study and probably started owning it from the start. Listening to the policy actors’ views helped to be more focused on the objectives and this was important. This is helpful not only for me but also to other researchers who may have been having problems in finding policy actors for their intended policy issues. Thank you very much together with your creativity and for being open minded and sharing with us your experiences of engagement with key policy actors.
Thanks, Peace, for your kind words. And thumbs up for the great job you and your team are doing on eradicating river blindness in Uganda. That strengthens my conviction that given the right tools and resources, African social science researchers can indeed make great things happen on this continent.
A very encouraging blog! One big lesson I have learnt is your determination to accomplish the task. It clearly shows that a researcher must learn to be very persistent, I like your comment that ” cold shoulder doesn’t mean a dead end”. I think that’s a very big lesson to me. I have also learnt that somehow along the way the researcher must invent some tricks in order to engage the stakeholders. Like the way you had to change from formal to informal approach and migrate from the “partnership mode” and stoop low to “at your service mode”.
Thanks, Josephine. As researchers we sometimes ask: why go through this? Why stoop? For us in Africa, our development burden is a major motivation — as well as our conviction that research can and should bring positive societal change.
Hi Obasanjo, Martin and Ayo,
thanks a lot for this great post! you nicely show that we need to be very ‘creative’ when aiming to collaborate with stakeholders for achiving societal impact. What works in one context might not work in an other. I also made the experience that in certain cases an ‘at-your-service’ attitude can be very fruitful for bringing stakeholders on board.
These days, I attend a workshop of the Lira 2030 research program in Abuja (Nigeria) to support the grantees (all coming from different African countries) to jointly reflect about their experiences with doing transdisciplinary research/stakeholder engagement. I will recommend them your article!
best wishes, Flurina
Thanks, Flurina. And if your trainees/grantees in Nigeria want to interact with us, they are welcome to do so.
Thank you, Ayobami, for those examples. We have a similar phenomenon in the United States. When someone wants to declare an argument to be impotent or impractical they say, “well, that’s all academic.” Best wishes for great success in your work!
Great blog – I also like the idea of shifting from promoting partnership to ‘at your service’ as a means of encouraging engagement. I also think its useful to spell out as you do just how much time and effort needs to be investing in meaningful stakeholder engagement.
Yes, Annette. Time and effort are core here. And how much of these are expended or, better, invested will depend on the issue and the disposition of the policy actors among other factors. I guess that at some point, maybe at the conclusion of the project, we will be able to describe how much went into the engagement in terms of time and effort.
Hello Kristen, thank you very much for your kind comments and interest. Your question is an interesting one. I agree with you that a good starting point is the assumption that “no one group – policy actors or researchers – has a more benevolent or altruistic position than the other”. Everyone wants a social problem (e.g insurgency) solved and it is difficult to gauge the differences in the levels of enthusiasm. However, a major difference is in the approach to solving the problem: policy makers (esp in Nigeria) do not appear to trust scientific evidence very much or do not think scientists understand the intricacies of policy making and execution. As a matter of fact, if you are a (social) scientist in Nigeria, you could be told: “all what you are saying is theory” — theory meaning the opposite of reality. Differences in methods, distrust, lack of faith in each other etc characterise the relationship between policy makers (and some actors) and researchers. Bridging this gulf required that “at-your-service approach”.
Thanks for contributing this very interesting post! I enjoyed reading about your role in #BBOG responses to this internationally and highly publicized event. Your reference to “at your service” mode made good sense to me, and I have used it many times, though not as successfully as you did! Could you explain more about the the differences that you encountered when working with policy actors. For example, I start with the assumption that no one group – policy actors or researchers – has a more benevolent or altruistic position than the other. This may not always be true, but I start with that assumption. Consequently, given that starting assumption, I find the differences in the motivations, enthusiasms, and willingness to engage across policy actors and researchers interesting points of reflection. Thanks for sharing your ideas!