Stakeholder engagement in research: The research-modified IAP2 spectrum

By Gabriele Bammer

author - gabriele bammer
Gabriele Bammer (biography)

What options are available to researchers for engaging stakeholders in a research project? What responsibilities do researchers have to stakeholders over the course of that project?

Despite increasing inclusion of stakeholders in research, there seems to be little guidance on how to do this effectively. Here I have adapted a framework developed by the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2 2018) for examining how the public are engaged in government decision making. The research-modified IAP2 spectrum, written from a researcher perspective, is shown in the figure below. The original IAP2 framework, for comparison, is shown in the figure at the end of this blog post.

Stakeholders are:

  • those affected by the problem under investigation (for example, community members or those in specific occupational groups), and
  • those in a position to do something about the problem (for example policy makers or service providers).

A major strength of the IAP2 framework is that it recognizes five types of engagement and these also work well in a research context:

  • Inform
    Researchers provide stakeholders with balanced and objective information to assist them in understanding the research.
  • Consult
    Researchers obtain stakeholder feedback on the research.
  • Involve
    Researchers work directly with stakeholders to ensure that stakeholder concerns and aspirations are consistently understood and considered in the research.
  • Collaborate
    Researchers partner with stakeholders for salient aspects of the research.
  • Empower
    Researchers assist stakeholders in conducting their own research.

Those developing the IAP2 framework suggested that no one type of engagement is privileged above the others. Instead they recognised that “differing levels of participation are legitimate and depend on the goals, time frames, resources, and levels of concern.” This also applies equally well in a research context.

A second major strength of the IAP2 framework, that also translates seamlessly into a research context, is that the engagement is seen as two-way, with an appropriate “promise” made to the stakeholder group for each type of participation. In the research context the promises are:

  • Inform promise
    We will keep you informed.
  • Consult promise
    We will keep you informed, listen to and acknowledge your concerns and aspirations and provide feedback on how your input influenced the research.
  • Involve promise
    We will work with you to ensure your concerns and aspirations are directly reflected in the research and we will provide feedback on how your input influenced the research.
  • Collaborate promise
    We will look to you for advice and innovation in designing and conducting the research and incorporate your advice and recommendations to the maximum extent possible.
  • Empower promise
    We will provide advice and assistance as requested in line with your decisions for designing and conducting your research, as well as for implementing the findings.

In moving from ‘inform’ to ‘empower’ stakeholders have increasing influence on the research. The spectrum works for different kinds of stakeholder involvement in different projects, as well as for developing a relationship with the same group of stakeholders over time.

bammer_describing-stakeholder-participation-updated-research-spectrum
The research-modified International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) spectrum. Source: Gabriele Bammer

One notable modification was made for the research-modified IAP2 spectrum. The word ‘each’ in the original stakeholder participation goal for ‘collaboration’, was replaced with ‘salient’ as in “Researchers partner with stakeholders for salient aspects of the research.” While full collaboration may be possible on a straight-forward research question (with, for example, few stakeholder groups and one simple form of data collection), it is often not feasible for research on more complex problems, where there are multiple stakeholder groups and forms of data collection. In such cases stakeholders are unlikely to have the time (or even inclination) to be involved in all aspects of the research.

The research-modified IAP2 spectrum has two additional benefits:

  • It promotes deep thinking about the engagement
  • It provides a rationale for involving stakeholders in different ways in any project.

Encouraging deep thinking about which kind of engagement is most appropriate in any research project is important. Even if “collaboration” is the aim, the framework provides a rationale for thinking about whether collaboration is actually realistic (for example, when resources are very limited) and whether some other kind of engagement is more suitable in the circumstances. This can also help in more accurately describing the engagement that occurs; for example a process may claim to be empowerment, but is actually consultation.

In addition, in any one research project which includes multiple stakeholder groups, the spectrum provides a opening for considering whether different groups (separately or together) could be involved in different ways. Further, over the course of the study or in different aspects of the study, the same stakeholder group can also be involved in different ways. For example one stakeholder group may be consulted, while another group is informed. Further, the same stakeholder group may be involved in one aspect of the research and a collaborator on another.

bammer_describing-stakeholder-participation_december-2019-updated-IAP2-spectrum
The original International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) spectrum. Source: International Association for Public Participation (2018).

Does the research-modified IAP2 spectrum look relevant to your research? Would you suggest further additions or changes? Are there other advantages that you can identify? What about disadvantages?

To find out more:
Bammer, G. (2019). Key issues in co-creation with stakeholders when research problems are complex. Evidence and Policy, 15, 3: 423-435. (Online) (DOI – Open Access): https://doi.org/10.1332/174426419X15532579188099

Reference:
International Association for Public Participation (IAP2). (2018). IAP2’s public participation spectrum. (Online): https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.iap2.org/resource/resmgr/pillars/Spectrum_8.5x11_Print.pdf  (PDF 160KB). The quotation is taken from: https://www.iap2.org.au/About-Us/About-IAP2-Australasia-/Spectrum

Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is a professor at The Australian National University in the Research School of Population Health’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health. She is developing the new discipline of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) to improve research strengths for tackling complex real-world problems through synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns, and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change. 

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

20 thoughts on “Stakeholder engagement in research: The research-modified IAP2 spectrum

  1. Thank you Gabriele for your article. I have a strong background in stakeholder engagement in government and Global NGO however I moved into supporting health research world 12 months ago. I have been looking to translate my IAP2 learnings into research for a while and you have done it perfectly….now to get my researchers onboard!

  2. Nice to see airtime being given to participant as collaborator in research. More of a provocation than commentary, but I have always thought the guidance/values described in the document ‘Ethical conduct in research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander Peoples and communities: Guidelines for researchers and stakeholders’, relevant to all research valuing people in any participatory (or other) research, and certainly for sustainability/impact of outcomes. Is there room in the revised spectrum to enrich/reflect upon these values further? I did enjoy reading, BTW 🙂

    PS: the link to the document – https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/about-us/resources/ethical-conduct-research-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-peoples-and-communities

    • Thanks Sean. I agree that there’s a lot to learn about appropriate stakeholder engagement from those involved in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research – thanks for highlighting that and linking to the report.

      The IAP2 spectrum draws much of its value from its simplicity, therefore I’d rather see a compilation of different tools, rather than trying to combine them.

  3. Interesting linking of research and practice Gabriele, thanks for writing it up and sharing! I first encountered the spectrum as part of IAP2 training working as an in house social scientist supporting public sector stakeholder engagement. Your discussion of complexity, and control, speaks strongly to my experience.

    At the time I intuitively mapped more ‘one way’ methods like surveys and interviews to ‘consult’, and more participatory and action orientated methods higher up (we didn’t get to do heaps of the latter except inside the organisation!). I think the IAP2 spectrum is strongest when there is a clear decision or action to be made, and using things like the worldbank stakeholder analysis tool (i.e. mapping people by ‘interest’ and ‘influence/power’ helps clarify where different actors might sit. I believe I was reading Yolande Wadsworth’s evaluation and social research guides for practitioners at the time, which had some good strategic questioning to help think through these things.

    But I’m less confident in applying the spectrum in more complex situations, it is indeed an important difference when the researchers are not the decision makers, for example when methodology is focused more on straightforward explanation/analysis, and/or where the research has an element of attempting reflexive coalition building and transformation, or ‘problematising’ unconsidered elements of a wicked problem.

    Its also a good reminder that even if we as researchers want the research to be transformational, it doesn’t necessarily mean the people involved see it that way, and different means of engagement might be more appropriate to different levels of interest and influence. It also links a bit to the ethics of research, and considering the value of the research for participants, versus its burdens and risks.

    Perhaps the distinction between research ‘on’ (i.e. descriptive/ explanatory/analytical) versus research ‘for’ (e.g. transformational or normative) in IASS’s (Institute for Advance Sustainability Studies) interdisciplinary methodology for example) is helpful here. I’m not sure the IAP2 spectrum is fine grained enough to speak well to both? But then maybe it doesn’t need to either!

    • Thanks Stefan. As you point out, the IAP2 spectrum (research-modified or not) alone doesn’t cover everything relevant to stakeholder engagement, and needs to be used with other tools, such as the alignment, interest and influence matrix (https://i2s.anu.edu.au/resources/stakeholder-analysis-alignment-interest-influence-matrix) and others.

      But It has real value in opening up options for researchers and countering assumptions (that can easily become dogma) that only collaboration or co-creation are worthwhile. It also helps us clearly identify what we are doing (and not pretend that consultation is collaboration).

      I agree that we shouldn’t place too big a burden on this one tool’s shoulders. The question of the spectrum’s value in transformative and normative research is worth exploring, along with thinking about what other tools are helpful in such research.

  4. Really enjoyed your article Gabriele – it’s a great way of thinking through how the engagement spectrum can be applied to research. I agree with you that it encourages a deeper thinking around engagement. This can be particularly useful when it comes to thinking strategically about knowledge translation and who you might engage and for what purpose. I have found it helpful to combine the engagement spectrum with stakeholder prioritisation. The reality for many researchers is that we only have so much time and resources to invest in engagement activities, so by prioritising our stakeholders, we can then determine at what level of the spectrum we want to engage them. With higher priority stakeholders we may choose to work at the collaborate end of the spectrum, whereas with lower priority stakeholders we may choose to work at the inform end of the spectrum. It all depends on what is best for the project. The number of people we can potentially inform is large whereas the number of people who we can pragmatically collaborate with is small. So using the spectrum with knowledge translation in mind can be really helpful when thinking strategically about where you will invest your time and resources.

    • Thanks – that’s a great set of points.

      It’s also worth adding that stakeholders will differ in the level of participation they welcome. Not everyone wants to collaborate, as that’s also a huge investment on their part. Some are very happy if they are listened to respectfully, know what they’ve said will be taken into account, and get feedback about what’s happened with their input – which is why the ‘promise’ is so important.

  5. Great piece, Gabriele! Our research team is doing research co-creation with IAP2 (Australasia) right now. The application of their spectrum to this process is obvious and you’ve done a great job clearly articulating the logic behind this.

    A third major strength of applying the spectrum to research is that it improves ethical engagements with research stakeholders by putting more focus on ensuring that those engagements are meaningful and valuable. For the most part –at least in social sciences–research participants are volunteers and give freely of their expertise, experience and time. The spectrum encourages researchers to consider the value being delivered to stakeholders.

    One challenge we’ve seen in several years working with community engagement professionals who use the IAP2 Spectrum daily: Although the spectrum clearly explains that the level of engagement (from ‘Inform’ to ‘Empower’) should be selected based on the relevance to the present stakeholders, many organisations read the spectrum like a grading stick. In other words, if it’s not ‘Empower’, then it’s not good enough. This is not the intention of the spectrum, and researchers should be aware of that.

    Thank you for sparking this conversation!

    • Many thanks, Sara, for emphasising the ethical issues and that the spectrum is NOT a grading stick. It would be great to think about a way to include ‘value to stakeholders’ in the spectrum itself – has anyone thought about that? Highlighting the ‘promise’ and that researchers need to give back rather than just ‘extract’ is already a huge contribution by the IAP2 folks.

  6. Great stuff – I would like to see national standards for this sort of thing. For example, when some report comes out it can be stamped with a quality rating based on the level of participation/collaboration (hmm… that might influence what kinds of awards are presented and so on).

    • Thanks Steve, although I wonder if your comment is heading down the ‘grading stick’ track warned against by Sara (with whom I agree)? I certainly think quality could be assessed as:
      a) accurately describing what was actually done (ie not calling a process that was ‘informing’ something that it was not eg ‘collaborating’), and
      b) looking for a match between what the researchers did and their circumstances. Eg sometimes resources and time will allow excellent ‘consultation’, but not ‘collaboration’. And vice versa.

      • Gabriele, Sorry for the delay – I’m at an academic gathering – and yes, I do believe that there should be some kind of evaluation. At the present, it may be too early to identify what that grade *should* be. However, I think you are on the right track that there should be multiple dimensions – a complex/interrelated evaluation and not a simple one-dimensional scale.

      • Gabriele, sure, “Practical Mapping” is the moniker that seems to be emerging for the creation of causal knowledge maps, used for program evaluation, strategic planning, policy, etc. – with a few key features. First, no source of data is privileged. Qualitative, quantitative, mixed, etc… all have their place (presume some basic relevance to the situation/context (and, generally, the map is better, more useful/practical when it is supported by more data). Second, the map is more practical when it is more closely related to the context/situation of more stakeholders. Or, to put it another way, the greater diversity of stakeholders involved in the mapping process, the more useful/practical it will be for them. Third, the concepts/variables/nodes of the map should be measurable – having some real world equivalence. Of course, some things may not be measurable… but the more concepts that are measurable, the more useful/practical the map will be.Next, the connections between the concepts must be causal. Now… I understand that some people have concerns with what I will refer to as “simple causality.” And, those concerns may certainly be justified. Because, if we look at one small piece of the puzzle (e.g. “only A causes only B”) the only thing we really know for sure is that we are looking at an incomplete picture. However, the piece is not the puzzle. When the map contains many causal connections, it provides a more complete and more useful/practical map.

        In combination, those features seem to lead us to creating the most practical/useful maps for supporting conversations, decision making, collaboration and so on to reach specified goals.

        A “light” version of this approach is contained in chapter one of our new book – available for free if you click on the “preview” tab here: https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/practical-mapping-for-applied-research-and-program-evaluation/book261152

  7. This is such a good framework – I always felt that the IAP2 approach was limited in that it was very much about information “in” for deliberation “out” rather than the co-generation of new knowledge when needed, for better decision making… this often kept citizens vulnerable to the expertise/bias of those who determined who the experts were. The other liability as I see it, is that unless people are actually involved in co-creating knowledge and experiential learning about both their learning in so doing, and the new approaches that their co-learning can generate then the outcome is likely to be unsustainable. But the overall architecture of IAP2 was sound – either as an hierarchical scale for logical steps up and down or as you are saying, a flat level network of options to fit the different needs of different stakeholders and researchers in different moments of the research. From a government research point of view, we just don’t have the resources to fully engage in co-design and co-research for all the policy areas needing inquiry. So this option helps everyone make the best of the opportunities we have, containing and disciplining the activities, to enable ethical and efficacious practices. In so doing you are building in that essential co-learning opportunity where possible. Many thanks – I will share.

    • Many thanks for these thoughts, Susan. It’s interesting to consider whether there should be another column “Co-creation” between “Collaborate” and “Empower”. Would be interested to hear what you and others think.

      I think the framework works well enough when the process is researcher-led, which is the case for most – but not all – research.

    • I agree. The key difficulty being the typical poor understanding of what knowledge “is” and so how to judge if it is useful/appropriate to collaborate/co-create. We like to use the “Practical Mapping” approach because experts and novices can sit at the same table to co-generate useful knowledge (although… sometimes separate tables may be best).

Leave a Reply