By Gabriele Bammer
Given that most research projects will not have the funding or time to involve all stakeholders who have been identified as potential contributors, what criteria are useful for selecting those to be invited to participate? How can those identified be assessed against the criteria?
Four criteria for selecting stakeholders are:
- their legitimacy
- their real and potential power
- the urgency they assign to the problem
- practical considerations.
Legitimacy can usefully be examined along the following four dimensions:
- Potential value of the stakeholder contributions.
Stakeholders who bring to bear extensive experience; insights into central aspects of the problem, its context or ways of dealing with it; and/or analytical details have greater legitimacy than those with shallow or peripheral viewpoints.
- Whose interests the stakeholders serve.
Stakeholders who work for societal good or the good of a group have greater legitimacy than those who primarily serve their own interests.
- How representative the stakeholders are.
Formal representatives of stakeholder groups have more legitimacy than informal representatives or self-appointed representatives.
- Legitimacy conferred on the stakeholders through participation.
The invitation to participate in research can confer legitimacy on stakeholders and their perspectives. This can be used deliberately by researchers to increase the legitimacy of marginalised groups.
For any particular stakeholder, legitimacy may not be uniform across each of these dimensions and there is no easy way of weighting the importance of different aspects. For example, a stakeholder may have extensive experience to bring to bear, but may be self-appointed. This was the case in my research on the feasibility of prescribing heroin to treat heroin dependence, where much was learnt from drug users, service providers and police who volunteered to help me understand their worlds.
Real and potential power
Stakeholders may already have power or may have the potential to be powerful, and it is useful to consider both groups along three dimensions:
- Utilitarian power
Stakeholders with utilitarian power contribute (or could contribute) resources or practical support to the research or to implementing its outcomes. This may include access to funding, data sources and equipment.
- Normative power
Stakeholders with normative power contribute (or could contribute) symbolic resources such as prestige, esteem, and acceptance. This can include public support for, and endorsement of, the research from community leaders or professional associations.
- Coercive power
Stakeholders with coercive power use or could use force or influence to direct the research. One way this can play out is when stakeholders with vested interests set out to halt or discredit research that threatens those interests.
Urgency or the need for immediate attention applies to stakeholders for whom understanding and/or acting on the problem is of major importance. Importance can be compounded by time sensitivity.
Time sensitivity can be associated with problems that have an irreversible element, for example they are life-threatening, associated with significantly reduced quality of life, threaten economic security, threaten ecosystem biodiversity, or threaten the destruction of artefacts.
Time sensitivity can also be associated with a narrow window for action. In a policy context this is often referred to as a “window of opportunity,” when political and other circumstances mean that there is a good possibility for action to be taken and to be successful.
Selecting stakeholders based on legitimacy, power and urgency ensures that the most relevant stakeholders are involved, which is generally not the case if they are selected on practicalities alone. Nevertheless, practicalities cannot be completely ignored. In working within the constraints of limited budgets and time, practical considerations include:
- How easy is it to access the stakeholders?
- Have relationships with the stakeholders already been built?
- How willing are the stakeholders to participate?
- What can realistically be achieved?
- Are particular skills or other resources to enable participation required and available, eg., expert facilitation, recompense to stakeholders for their participation?
- Are there any risks?
The selection process
Stakeholders can be mapped according to how they rate on each of the first three attributes, using a Venn diagram as shown in the figure below.
Stakeholders can then be categorised as having:
- High legitimacy, power and urgency
- High legitimacy and power
- High legitimacy and urgency
- High legitimacy
- High power and urgency
- High power
- High urgency.
In general, priority for selection would be given to stakeholders with high legitimacy (groups 1-4) over the other groups.
In the heroin trial feasibility research, for example, police commissioners, the police union and the peak medical association were considered to have high legitimacy and power. Dependent heroin users and their parents were considered to have high legitimacy and urgency.
At the other extreme, the research team was occasionally approached by members of the public who were very concerned about the issue who had advice, but little concrete experience, to offer; they could be assessed as meeting the criterion of urgency, but as having neither legitimacy nor power.
The four attributes provide an aid to decision making rather than hard and fast rules. Importantly there are a number of constraints in assessing stakeholders according to the attributes, including that they are:
- dynamic and can change over time
- socially constructed
- difficult to assess.
Assessment of stakeholders against the criteria of legitimacy, power and urgency may require input from a diverse group of advisers, who have different insights into the various stakeholders, including from direct knowledge, observations and their own research.
Assessments become particularly important when selecting stakeholders with opposing views on a problem, bearing in mind that including stakeholders in research confers legitimacy on them and their perspectives. In such cases a balance has to be found between what the stakeholders can offer the research and the legitimacy that being invited to contribute confers.
Anything to add?
What has your experience been with stakeholder selection? Are there other criteria that you have brought to bear? What processes have you used to decide which stakeholders to invite to join the research? How have you managed stakeholders with opposing views?
Sources and references:
The power, legitimacy and urgency framework was adapted from research in a business context by Mitchell and colleagues. The three dimensions of power were adapted from the research of Etzioni cited by Mitchell and colleagues. The challenges in the selection process were adapted from the work by Durham and colleagues on stakeholder engagement. All of these authors, in turn, drew on the work of others, which is cited in the references below.
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
Etzioni, A. (1964). Modern organizations. Prentichttps://i2insights.org/2021/12/02/generating-ideas-and-reaching-agreement/e-Hall: Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, cited in Mitchell at al., (1997).
Mitchell, R. K., Agle, B. R. and Wood. D. J. (1997). Toward a Theory of Stakeholder Identification and Salience: Defining the Principle of Who and What Really Counts. Academy of Management Review, 22, 4: 853-886. (Online) (DOI): http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/259247
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:
3. Selecting stakeholders (October 28, 2021)
Still to come:
4. Options for engagement (November 4, 2021)
5. Choosing engagement options (November 11, 2021)
6. Making engagement effective (November 18, 2021)
7. Listening and dialogue (November 25, 2021)
8. Generating ideas and reaching agreement (December 2, 2021)
9. Evaluating engagement (December 9, 2021)
10. Advanced skills (December 16, 2021)