Stakeholder engagement primer: 5. Choosing engagement options

By Gabriele Bammer

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How can researchers decide which engagement options will be most appropriate for which stakeholders? How can they take into account multiple considerations such as the aims of stakeholder engagement, the requirements of the research and available resources?

It can be helpful to think through how each option for stakeholder engagement (described in Primer #4) would be operationalised for each stakeholder, using the questions below. These make explicit what researchers often do intuitively.

By teasing out specifically what is required and matching this with the available resources – time, money and person-power – the aim is to reduce the possibility of a project running out of steam for stakeholder engagement before it is concluded and to maximise the chances that the commitments made by researchers to stakeholders (the ‘promise’ described in Primer #4) for each type of engagement can be fulfilled.

Inform (researchers provide stakeholders with balanced and objective information to assist them in understanding the research):

  • Which project and engagement goals will we achieve by informing stakeholders?
  • Who are we targeting? Is informing a suitable strategy for these stakeholders?
  • What information will we provide? How will we ensure that it is balanced and objective?
  • When are the optimal times during the research process to provide information?
  • What communication channels will we use?
  • Will we encourage questions? Will we respond and, if so, how?
  • Will we encourage suggestions and criticism? Will we respond and, if so, how?
  • How will we honour our promise to keep stakeholders informed?
  • Is what we want to do in line with the resources we have?

Consult (researchers obtain stakeholder feedback on the research):

  • Which project and engagement goals will we achieve by consulting stakeholders?
  • Which stakeholders do we want feedback from? Is consulting a suitable strategy for these stakeholders?
  • Which aspects of the research do we want feedback on?
  • How will we present those aspects of the research to stakeholders?
  • When are the optimal times during the research process to solicit feedback?
  • How will we solicit feedback and what options will be provided?
  • How will we record and analyse the feedback?
  • How and when will we use the feedback?
  • What will we do with unsolicited feedback ie., from people outside the targeted groups or on aspects of the research for which we are not seeking feedback?
  • How will we honour our promise to keep stakeholders informed, listen to and acknowledge their concerns and aspirations, and provide feedback on how their input influenced the research?
  • Is what we want to do in line with the resources we have?

Involve (researchers work directly with stakeholders to ensure that stakeholder concerns and aspirations are consistently understood and considered in the research):

  • Which project and engagement goals will we achieve by involving stakeholders?
  • Which stakeholders or stakeholder representatives do we want to involve? Is involving a suitable strategy for these stakeholders?
  • Which aspects of the research do we want to involve them in?
  • When are the optimal times during the research process to involve them?
  • How will we present those aspects of the research to stakeholders?
  • How will we work with stakeholders to ensure that we understand their concerns and aspirations? How will we know that we have properly understood them?
  • How will we consider stakeholder concerns and aspirations in the research?
  • What will we do if concerns and aspirations cannot be accommodated?
  • How will we honour our promise to ensure stakeholder concerns and aspirations are directly reflected in the research and to provide feedback on how their input influenced the research?
  • Is what we want to do in line with the resources we have?

Collaborate (researchers develop equal partnerships with stakeholders for undertaking the research):

  • Which project and engagement goals will we achieve by collaborating with stakeholders?
  • Which stakeholders or stakeholder representatives do we want to collaborate with?
  • Which aspects of the research do we want to collaborate on, for example:
    • co-designing a project or sub-project?
    • co-producing research findings?
    • co-constructing the interpretation of research findings?
    • co-creating the reporting of research findings?
    • co-innovating potential ways of addressing the problem and supporting policy and practice change based on the research findings?
  • What will collaborating on these various aspects of the research entail?
  • When is the optimal time to initiate collaboration?
  • What do we mean by an equal partnership? Is this realistic?
  • What will collaboration require from the stakeholders? Is this realistic? Will they need to be paid?
  • Will stakeholders become part of the research team or will we collaborate in some other way? How will we foster the relationships necessary to build trust and respect?
  • How will we honour our promise to stakeholders to include them as equal partners in designing and conducting the research?
  • Is what we want to do in line with the resources we have?

Support (researchers provide input as requested to stakeholder-led research):

  • Are there stakeholders who want to conduct their own research? Are they well-equipped to do this? Which stakeholder research do we want to support? Which project and engagement goals will we achieve by supporting stakeholders?
  • What assistance can we realistically provide? Is this in line with what the stakeholders are requesting? Do we think they need more (or less) than they are requesting?
  • What do we want in return for our support? Is this realistic?
  • Will we be part of the stakeholder research team or will we provide support in some other way eg., as paid or unpaid consultants?
  • How will we honour our promise to provide advice and assistance as requested for designing and conducting the stakeholder-led research?
  • Is what we want to do, and what the stakeholders want, in line with the resources we and the stakeholders have?

These questions may also be useful for reassessing the stakeholder engagement during the research to determine if the engagement is on track or needs to be modified. They also provide an overview of issues that it is useful to report on in publications once the research is completed.

Accurately describing the engagement options used and the rationale behind them is essential for stakeholder engagement to be realistically assessed and improved, including by ensuring that funders provide adequate support. Collaboration is often seen to be the gold standard for stakeholder engagement. As a result, an engagement process is often reported to be co-production or co-innovation when the reality is very different. Indeed, it is naive to expect that all, or even most, stakeholder engagement will be collaborative. True collaboration requires considerable motivation from both parties, as well as resources and time to develop trust, find common ground, realise the potential of the collaboration, and resolve problems and conflicts when they arise. Many stakeholders simply do not have the time or interest to be full partners and research budgets and timeframes often cannot accommodate this way of working.

Anything to add?

Particularly welcome are examples of the process you used to decide how you would engage stakeholders, and how well you were able to achieve what you set out to do.

If you are new to stakeholder engagement, is there anything else on choosing options for engagement that would be useful?

If you have engaged with stakeholders in your research, what would you add to the questions above? Is there anything you wish you had known when you were deciding how to engage? Do you have lessons from experience to share?

Sources and references:
The main source is my own research and experience which aligns with other work cited in this primer.

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:

Published:
1. a. Why a primer? b. Defining stakeholders (October 14, 2021)
2. Identifying stakeholders (October 21, 2021)
3. Selecting stakeholders (October 28, 2021)
4. Options for engagement (November 4, 2021)

This blog post:
5. Choosing engagement options (November 11, 2021)

Still to come:
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)

4 thoughts on “Stakeholder engagement primer: 5. Choosing engagement options”

  1. Thank you Gabriele, this framework is very helpful! A few other questions to throw into the mix (which you touch upon above, and might explore more in the other accompanying blog posts), is how can the stakeholders have a say in how they engaged? How can the decisions of level of involvement be decided in dialogue with diverse stakeholders, instead of made on their behalf by the project team? And what kinds of processes can support the evolution of engagement, as the project’s direction and goals (inevitably) change over time?

    Reply
    • Thanks Katie. Those are important issues, but to my mind probably not ones for beginners, which is where the primer is aimed.

      Balancing what’s wanted, what’s realistic and what’s funded can be challenging. For researchers new to stakeholder engagement, I suggest it may be most useful to be clear about the options, figuring out what they can best offer to stakeholders and ensuring that they deliver what they promise. With some experience under their belts, researchers are in a better position to set up conditions where stakeholders are well-placed to have a say. And it all becomes easier if there’s a long-term relationship between researchers and stakeholders and good understanding on both sides of the constraints.

      What do you and others think? Do you have lessons from experience to share?

      Reply
      • Ah yes, that is true, our processes for making decisions around stakeholder engagement mature over time.

        One thing that I’ve learned is that if the core project team has representatives from many different spaces and places, it is easier to decide on the appropriate options for stakeholder engagement; but if the core team is just inside the university, much more time goes into ‘stakeholder management’.

        For example, a very powerful project that I had the joy of partaking in had 3 uni individuals, 1 international NGO individual, 1 local NGO individual, and 2 national government individuals all as core team members collaboratively under-taking the research. This make-up of the core team made the decisions about stakeholder involvement much more informed from the context.

        Reply

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