By Gabriele Bammer
1a. Why a primer?
Do researchers who want to engage with stakeholders need a basic set of skills? Can we define a skillset that will work for many problems and in a variety of contexts?
My starting point for this primer is that the answer to both questions is “yes” and I have set out to provide those basics in nine easy-to-read blog posts. The tenth blog post in the series sketches out selected additional “advanced” skills; these need more interpersonal competences, experience, and knowledge.
The advantages of using a blog over other forms of communication are that it provides a vehicle for input and feedback, as well as being widely accessible. Comments on each blog post are therefore very welcome, particularly examples and lessons from your own work, things you wish you had known when you were starting out, and general feedback and critique.
The primer aims to kick-start a process to:
- overcome the fragmentation of knowledge about stakeholder engagement, so that researchers can build on an agreed body of knowledge rather than re-inventing the wheel.
- minimise the occurrence of poorly conducted stakeholder engagement, which is not only a problem for the project concerned, but can also lead to stakeholders becoming disillusioned with research and unwilling to subsequently engage with other researchers.
So let’s get started…
1b. Defining stakeholders
Who are the stakeholders in a research project? What considerations are important in thinking about stakeholders as individuals, groups and representatives of groups?
Stakeholders are those affected by the problem being researched and those in a position to do something about it.
Another way of saying this is: “A stakeholder is any person or group who influences or is influenced by the research” (Durham et al., 2014, p. 12).
A third way of defining stakeholders is those who can contribute to the research in the following ways:
- help develop a more comprehensive understanding of the problem, both what is known and what is not known
- provide ideas about addressing the problem, including what may and may not work
- provide insights into how the research can more effectively support policy and/or practice action to address the problem by government, business or civil society.
In research on illicit drugs, for example, those affected by the problem include illicit drug users, ex-users, families of illicit drug users and the general public. Those in a position to do something about the problem include police; the legal profession; those providing treatment, welfare and support services to illicit drug users; and government policy makers. They can all help develop a more comprehensive understanding of the problem and provide ideas about addressing the problem. Those in a position to do something about the problem can provide insights into how research can effectively support policy and practice change, while those affected by the problem can provide insights into what that change will mean for them.
There is some disagreement about whether the researchers themselves should be seen as stakeholders. In this primer, stakeholders are seen through the lens of the researchers undertaking the project and therefore researchers are not included as stakeholders themselves.
Individuals, groups and representation
Stakeholders can be individuals or groups.
Individuals usually have very specific knowledge or positions of influence, so that they are invited in their own right.
For example, in research that I conducted on the feasibility of a trial of heroin prescription to treat heroin dependence, there were key individuals in the city where the trial would be undertaken including the police commissioner, the chief magistrate, the doctor in charge of treatment for illicit drug use and the public servant in charge of drug policy.
Stakeholder groups can include networks, loose affiliations, neighbourhoods, organisations, and the general public. There are limited ways in which groups can participate, especially if they are large. It is common, therefore, to invite one or more representatives of groups to participate.
There are three major ways in which representatives of groups can be chosen:
- Formal representation. This is often associated with a legally constituted group and a voting process.
- Informal representation. This is often the case when a group is not legally constituted or a way of choosing representatives is less well structured.
- Self-appointed representatives. This occurs when individuals put themselves forward; they may be backed by none, some or all of the group.
In my research on the feasibility of a trial of heroin prescription:
- formal stakeholder representatives included relevant government ministers (elected to represent the general public), the office holders of the police union (elected to represent the majority of serving police officers), and office holders of a formally constituted organisation of parents of illicit drug users (elected by the members).
- informal stakeholder representatives included employees of a formally constituted organisation of illicit drug users and employees of treatment and service organisations.
- self-appointed representatives included illicit drug users and ex-users who offered to provide insights that I would not otherwise have access to.
A challenging aspect of representation is that within any group there will be diverse knowledge, perceptions and concerns about the problem. Regardless of the aspect of the problem considered, groups are almost always heterogeneous, rather than homogeneous. Furthermore, group members may have views that are not just different, but also conflicting. Ideally stakeholder representation will reflect or at least accommodate such heterogeneity, for example by having more than one representative from a group.
Anything to add?
Do you have a different definition of stakeholders to share?
Particularly welcome are examples from your research of key individuals, as well as of formal, informal and self-appointed stakeholder representatives.
Sources and references:
The main source is my own research and experience which aligns with other work cited in this primer.
Bammer, G. (2013). Disciplining Interdisciplinarity: Integration and Implementation Sciences for Researching Complex Real-World Problems. ANU Press: Canberra, Australian Capital Territory. (Online – open access for e-book): http://dx.doi.org/10.22459/DI.01.2013
Durham E., Baker H., Smith M., Moore E. and Morgan V. (2014). BiodivERsA Stakeholder Engagement Handbook. ERA-NET BiodivERsA: Paris, France. (Online – open access): http://www.biodiversa.org/702
Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is Professor of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at The Australian National University in Canberra. She is also a member of blog partner PopulationHealthXchange.
The Stakeholder Engagement Primer comprises the following blog posts:
This blog post:
- a. Why a primer? b. Defining stakeholders (October 14, 2021)
Still to come:
- Identifying stakeholders (October 21, 2021)
- Selecting stakeholders (October 28, 2021)
- Options for engagement (November 4, 2021)
- Choosing engagement options (November 11, 2021)
- Making engagement effective (November 18, 2021)
- Listening and dialogue (November 25, 2021)
- Generating ideas and reaching agreement (December 2, 2021)
- Evaluating engagement (December 9, 2021)
- Advanced skills (December 16, 2021)