A flexible framework for stakeholder engagement

By Michelle Banfield

Michelle Banfield (biography)

How can stakeholder engagement in research be effectively planned? What parameters need to be taken into account? How can flexibility be built in to accommodate different levels of researcher and stakeholder experience?

The framework presented here was developed for health services research, but is more broadly applicable. The framework has three separate dimensions.

  1. The stakeholders to involve
  2. The stages of the research at which they will be involved
  3. The level of involvement for each stakeholder group at each stage.

When combined, these dimensions form an easy to use matrix to plan the involvement of stakeholders at the initiation of the project. The model is designed to break planning into manageable pieces. This encourages thinking “outside the box” in terms of design and methods, giving stakeholders the opportunity to decide how they would like to contribute and reducing the chances of imposing the researchers’ plans upon them.

The stakeholder engagement matrix

The relevant stakeholders will vary from project to project and it is helpful to consider everyone who has something useful to contribute to understanding or acting on the problem. There are also multiple ways of describing the stages of research, with the five stages shown in the figure below providing a straight-forward characterisation that is broadly applicable.

As the figure below demonstrates, when the first two dimensions (stakeholders and research stages) are combined, they form a blank matrix into which research planners can insert level of involvement ‘markers’ to complete the plan of involvement in their project.

(Source: Banfield, Yen and Newby 2011)

The level of engagement shown in the figure below is based on Arnstein’s ladder (1969), a description of which can be found in Katrin Prager’s blog post comparing participation and co-creation.

(Source: Banfield, Yen and Newby 2011)

The “best” involvement is that which is appropriate to the project as well as to the skills and experience with collaborative research of all stakeholders including the researchers. This is not always at the highest end of the scale.

A completed matrix may then look something like the figure below (based on a fictitious example), where:

  • there is joint planning among all stakeholder groups when deciding what to research
  • researchers have greater responsibility for deciding on methods and carrying out the project, with some consultation and advice from stakeholders
  • consumers and practitioners have more responsibility when the research findings are disseminated
  • completing the cycle (and beginning a new cycle) with decisions on the next steps such as implementation plans and further research is again a joint planning process.

(Source: Banfield, Yen and Newby 2011)

A key feature of the proposed framework is flexibility. Researchers are not constrained by applying one level of involvement to their entire project or to all the involved stakeholders. Further, the plan should not be considered as fixed, but rather to be modifiable throughout the course of the research if necessary. For example, if consumers showed particular interest in data collection and capacity existed to train them, it would be possible to update the above plan to reflect delegated responsibility for consumers in carrying out the research.

Final thoughts

Engagement needs to be appropriate – don’t set people up to fail, so consider:

  • Skills of the people offering the engagement opportunity
  • Skills of the people being engaged
  • Build in plenty of time and resources for engagement – it should be central to program and research design, not an afterthought
  • Ensure people involved in your work are not out-of-pocket (reimburse costs)
  • Shared expectations are crucial to a good experiences for all parties
  • Document your own assumptions about engagement, what you want from the process, boundaries of things that cannot be altered and areas of flexibility
  • Document the same for the people being engaged
  • Invest time discussing documented positions to reach a shared understanding
  • Be prepared to negotiate and ensure you are in a position to use the feedback provided: it is tokenistic to consult stakeholders, especially people with lived experience, if you are unwilling or unable to use their recommendations.

Finally, the proposed framework is designed to encourage researchers to think about their own capabilities in managing the involvement process and to design a project that maximises the opportunity of all to succeed. Many researchers strongly support stakeholder involvement in research but feel they do not have sufficient experience and skills to undertake higher level involvement such as employing a consumer researcher. The proposed framework allows these researchers to start with involvement in specific parts of their research and build on their successes in a continual cycle of improvement and extension.

What do you think? Would you find such a framework useful? Does it cover everything that you think is important? Are there other frameworks that you use?

To find out more:
Banfield, M., Yen, L. and Newby, L. (2011). Stakeholder involvement in primary health care research: Report and recommendations. Australian Primary Health Care Research Institute: Canberra, Australia. Online (downloadable): https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/119219 (PDF 612KB).

Arnstein, S. R. (1969). A ladder of citizen participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35, 4: 216-224.

Biography: Michelle Banfield PhD is Head of Lived Experience Research at the Centre for Mental Health Research, Research School of Population Health, The Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. She leads a program of work that takes a health systems approach to evidence for effective mental health service provision. As a researcher with lived experience of mental illness, her research has a strong engagement and translational focus. She conducts research in collaboration with other consumers, carers and stakeholders to develop and implement effective mental health services and policy reform.

Michelle Banfield is a member of blog partner PopulationHealthXchange, which is in the Research School of Population Health at The Australian National University.

6 thoughts on “A flexible framework for stakeholder engagement”

  1. Hi Michelle
    Thanks for this. I like the framework for its simplicity (and therefore usability) and for the way you have framed stakeholder engagement as situational. It reminds me of a leadership framework taught by Wilf Jarvis called 4QL. Wilf argued that the degree of delegation should be related to both capability and attitude; if either quality was low the extent of delegated agency would need to be limited. My concern with such models is that it is hard to avoid a kind of paternalism in exercising the judgement about other parties and their relevant role in a project. I don’t think we can avoid some judgement, but I suggest that our decision-making processes be open to critical review by ourselves and others. I think your framework could provide a structured way of reflecting on such judgements, and making them transparent and discussable. I think that it would therefore be useful to put some critical questions along side your framework; question like those posed by Ulrich’s Critical Systems Heuristics, for example. In essence, the critical questions would ask of each judgement about the who and how of engagement: who is making this judgement? which perspectives are being privileged (or marginalised)? who or what benefits?

    • Hi Graeme
      Thanks for your thoughts and the parallels with frameworks for other purposes.
      You raise a very important point regarding critical questions on judgement. When I present this model in workshops, I always suggest that the plan itself is an opportunity for engagement and discussion between all stakeholders. It’s very easy for those in positions of power to make assumptions about others’ capacity and willingness to contribute without even realising it. I agree that critical questions to help us reflect on decision-making and acknowledge our position are very useful.
      Thanks again.

  2. Thanks Michelle,

    this is a great resource to have and its simplicity is very attractive!

    From my limited experience, particularly on projects that last years, there is a tendency for stakeholder participation to change throughout the lifespan of the project which means initial decisions made on the degree of participation in projects have the potential to vary. Do you update this framework as projects/staff/participation change? or is this something you use upfront in planning stages to get everyone on the same page in regard to their shared roles and degree of input? I’d be interested to hear how you use this framework over the lifespan of a project

    Thanks for a great article

    • Hi Dena
      Glad you like the framework and its simplicity. We consider it under a process of continual development but always focus on keeping it simple and easy to apply.
      When I use the framework in workshops to help people kickstart their engagement and participation processes, I usually present it as a planning tool for the design stages. This is mainly to encourage thinking about engagement early. Too often, people still try to “add on” stakeholder engagement and participation after much of the research project is already set in place. This makes it harder to plan and also gets collaboration off to a poor start.
      However, you’re quite right that participation usually changes across the lifespan of projects. I don’t see the completed matrix as fixed or prescriptive. The framework provides a means to break things into manageable parts, but just as research projects are fluid, so is the matrix. As work progresses, it’s good to revisit what was originally planned and update the matrix. It’s also a useful tool for evaluating what happened with your engagement and participation at the end of projects.
      Thanks for your input.


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