Are more stakeholders better?

Eleanor Sterling (biography)

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).

2 thoughts on “Are more stakeholders better?”

  1. Thank you for this great observation. It is definitely correct that different levels of a system would engender different engagement. I think our point was to say, once you have a particular bounded problem with specific potential stakeholders it is important to not treat them all in the same way and that more engagement is not normative. Great insights though and very important that we keep this in mind in future discussions of the figure etc.

  2. Dealing with stakeholders in different ways at different times is, as you say, very important. Perhaps one way of deciding upon the correct approach for any given stakeholder is to focus on the problem to be solved rather than immediately upon the stakeholders and how to engage with them.

    Complex problems could be perceived as fractal and hierarchical: possessing the same fundamental characteristics at different levels of a system (say global, regional, local, individual). However, the context of each level in the hierarchy changes: the problem may have the same basic shape and structure but it will be clothed very differently.

    This means that different solutions will probably be needed for different levels of the problem, and different ways of engaging with those stakeholders influencing the ‘look and feel’ of the problem (within their level of the problem) will definitely need to be found.

    This needs more thought than I can give it here, but essentially the ‘higher levels’ of the problem would perhaps need formal and strategic high-profile interventions, and the lower levels would need more informal, tactical and interpersonally (even family) focused interventions.

    Just a first thought on reading your interesting post and looking at your diagram.


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