Stakeholder engagement primer: 1a. Why a primer? 1b. Defining stakeholders

By Gabriele Bammer

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?

Definitions

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:

  1. Formal representation. This is often associated with a legally constituted group and a voting process.
  2. Informal representation. This is often the case when a group is not legally constituted or a way of choosing representatives is less well structured.
  3. 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:

  1.  a. Why a primer? b. Defining stakeholders (October 14, 2021)

Still to come:

  1. Identifying stakeholders (October 21, 2021)
  2. Selecting stakeholders (October 28, 2021)
  3. Options for engagement (November 4, 2021)
  4. Choosing engagement options (November 11, 2021)
  5. Making engagement effective (November 18, 2021)
  6. Listening and dialogue (November 25, 2021)
  7. Generating ideas and reaching agreement (December 2, 2021)
  8. Evaluating engagement (December 9, 2021)
  9. Advanced skills (December 16, 2021)

13 thoughts on “Stakeholder engagement primer: 1a. Why a primer? 1b. Defining stakeholders”

  1. ‘’Stakeholders are those affected by the problem being researched and those in a position to do something about it. I find this to be a succinct definition, covering communities, professionals, ordinary citizens of various demographics and peculiarities who are often at the ‘receiving end’ of the problem, as well as those who have the capacity to solve the problem (e.g. researchers and communities), bring awareness to the problem (e.g researchers, media, civil society and advocacy groups), establish capacities to address the problem (e.g. advocacy groups, researchers) and provide legal backing for solutions (e.g government), amongst others. I am tempted to ask: what about those that cause the problem (for example pollution causing industries)? Maybe they fit into the second half of those in a position to do something about it (e.g. stop being the causal agent, reduce their problem etc). I liken this definition to the Brundtland Commission’s definition for sustainable development: ‘Development that meets the need of the present without compromising the ability of the future generation to meet theirs’: very encompassing, capable of being dissected to fit the peculiarities of the researchers’ quest, also capable of being laid out as a conceptualization tool to identify who should be engaged. Before reading the rest of the post, I also reflected: this definition does not put the researcher at the top of the engagement process, but rather sees them as part of the stakeholders thus potentially providing opportunities for levelling (somewhat) the hegemonic relationship between the researcher and the researched that has earlier been discussed in several blog articles before this one. From my standpoint as someone interested in decolonizing research, I am of the position that even while being the agent that decides who the stakeholder is, the researcher should become introspective once engagement starts, to see themselves as a stakeholder as well, to deepen their role as ‘’persons who are in a position to do something about the problem” and not persons who dictate & decide what should be done. For me, it is this capacity for introspectiveness that transdisciplinary researchers need to develop for meaningful engagement. Thanks Gabriele for this post and I look forward to the others.

    Reply
    • Many thanks for these thoughts and for highlighting the issue of those who cause the problem – it’s a good point that they should be more visible. I agree that how researchers position themselves is important and touch on this in some of the other blog posts, before dealing with power and control in the 10th blog post. I’ll be most interested in your reflections, along with those of other readers.

      Reply
  2. Thank you for this post. Really enjoyed it! Whom within the research community at large do you feel should be considering stakeholder engagement in their research?

    Reply
    • Thanks Matt – it’s an important consideration. The perspective I come at this from is researchers who are tackling complex societal and environmental problems – they may call themselves inter- or trans-disciplinarians. systems thinkers, post-normal scientists or, in my case, integration and implementation scientists. Those researchers undertake stakeholder engagement because they know that stakeholders have perspectives that the researchers would never come close to considering without the engagement. And those perspectives are critical for obtaining a more comprehensive understanding of the problem and finding more effective ways to act on it. This can then be extrapolated to answer your question – stakeholder engagement should be undertaken if it would offer the researcher a more comprehensive understanding of the problem and more effective action on it. What do you and others think?

      Reply
  3. Thank you, Gabriele, for this crucial and beneficial stakeholder engagement primer blog. You hit one of the crucial and hardest stages of the transdisciplinary projects. I would like to discuss one of the definitions of Stakeholders which is “Researchers are not included as stakeholders themselves.” From this point, I would like to share my experience as the leader of a transdisciplinary project, in the 2021 interdisciplinary excellence research impact program. The research project was about a “developing and implementing an interdisciplinary practices curriculum, for integrated postgraduate students in Egypt.” Among the stakeholders at the early stage of the project were seniors’ researchers (dean and vice dean of integrated Institutions that deliver integrated programs). They fulfilled the criteria of the definition of stakeholders which was mentioned in this blog: “A stakeholder is any person or group who is influenced by the research” (Durham et al. 2014, p.12). The senior researchers are individuals representing a group (the institution) and formal representatives, and their institutions will benefit from the research project. So, I believe that researchers can play the role of stakeholders in the educational transdisciplinary project to develop a better understanding of the project problem and provide ideas about tackling the problem.

    Another experience I would like to share with you is the Interpersonal key player skills that facilitate reaching stakeholders are Connections and communications in the transdisciplinary projects.

    Looking forward to the forthcoming series blogs of Stakeholder engagement.

    Best wishes,

    Manal

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Manal. I agree completely that in your case the researchers you worked with were stakeholders. I was not clear enough in the blog post, because what I meant was that the researchers undertaking the project are not considered as stakeholders in this series of blog posts. I recognise, however, that not everyone would agree with this and that some would argue that those undertaking the project are also stakeholders.

      Reply
  4. I have reviewed information like this with my collaborators/stakeholders in Academia and after discussion they have told me in Academics there is another factor to consider.

    How many of you are familiar with the analogy in Scrum of the Pig and the Chicken?
    https://www.visual-paradigm.com/scrum/scrum-pig-and-chicken/

    When you are working with a stakeholder who is a PI the dynamic changes.
    A PI is both a chicken and a pig – is what I have been told.
    They contribute their “eggs” with ideas and research –
    But the PI is a pig in the nature that their personal reputation is intertwined with the entire project itself.

    This has really helped me when dealing with PIs – and how to communicate what information to them.

    Reply
    • Thanks – I’ve pasted the chicken and pig fable below. Level of commitment is a useful aspect to take into account.

      The fable of the Chicken and the Pig is used to illustrate the differing levels of project stakeholders involved in a project. The basic fable runs:

      A Pig and a Chicken are walking down the road.

      The Chicken says: “Hey Pig, I was thinking we should open a restaurant!”

      Pig replies: “Hm, maybe, what would we call it?”

      The Chicken responds: “How about ‘ham-n-eggs’?”

      The Pig thinks for a moment and says: “No thanks. I’d be committed, but you’d only be involved.”

      Reply
      • Hi Gabriele, many thanks for the excellent post, looking forward to the next ones. Out of curiosity, coming from a European network of programmers/funders of research projects on biodiversity seeking to promote transdiciplinary approaches and stakeholder engagement, we sometimes see projects involving e.g. social science studies studying e.g. perceptions on this or that question, or values for biodiversity based on people’s preferences. Some projects consider that this study of stakeholders, more as “research objects” in such cases, is stakeholder engagement (e.g. consult level) – while others don’t report it as stakeholder engagement per se. Any views on this would be interesting to hear 🙂

        Reply
        • Thanks Frederic. It’s an interesting question if I am interpreting it correctly ie whether all social science research should involve stakeholder engagement or whether it’s not always necessary. Given that no research can be perfect, what level of stakeholder involvement is good enough? Can you do a good survey of a population group without asking them to help you design the survey or at least doing some qualitative work first to understand the group’s perspective? I am not a social scientist so feel poorly quipped to answer, but it would be great to hear what others think and to hear more about your perspective as a funder.

          Reply
  5. Very interesting perspective to tackle any societal or research problem in general. Stakeholders have to be people in trenches and forefront of any problem besides the subject matter experts and folks in position of power to implement policy changes as solutions. People from various walks of life and experiences bring in unique perspectives from their shared authentic wisdom to discern mundane from actual tangible feasible pragmatic solutions. Listening and priming of the collective group and setting ground rules for camaraderie, respect and credibility are crucial in finding innovative solutions to any problems. There ought to be willingness to imbibe and inculcate the helpful suggestions and recommendations into set of priorities that could be implemented in various phases to address problem head on.

    Reply

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