By Gabriele Bammer
How can researchers ensure that stakeholder contributions ― whether through consultation, involvement or collaboration ― are properly valued? What steps can researchers take to make stakeholder participation as effective as possible? How can damaging pitfalls be avoided?
Researchers can make the stakeholder engagement process maximally effective by paying attention to the following three aspects:
- ensuring credibility, relevance and legitimacy of stakeholder contributions
- accommodating stakeholder motivations, expertise and ability to participate
- avoiding or managing potential pitfalls.
1. Ensuring credibility, relevance and legitimacy of stakeholder participation
Stakeholders are more likely to feel that their participation is valued if they perceive it to be credible, relevant and legitimate. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Credibility is determined by how stakeholders perceive the quality and validity of a) the other stakeholders who are invited to participate and b) the participation processes. Credibility is enhanced when:
- the other invited stakeholders are considered to be appropriate eg., they are formal representatives or are well respected
- stakeholders with opposing views who are included are generally respected
- there are clear objectives
- the processes used are transparent and seen to be appropriate eg., well-recognised consultation, involvement or collaborative processes are used
- there is continuity in the participation, allowing relationships to be maintained, trust to be strengthened and stakeholder knowledge and skills to be built on.
Relevance is determined by how useful stakeholders consider the participation processes and outcomes to be, especially how well their needs are taken into account. Relevance is enhanced when:
- attention is paid to appropriate timing of participation processes ie., engagement needs to be at a stage where it can have real influence on the research
- research results are delivered in a timely manner eg., to demonstrate to stakeholders the impact of their engagement or to capitalise on opportunities to influence policy or practice
- the participation and communication processes are effective and ongoing throughout the research
- participation is adapted to changing circumstances
- understandable language is used.
Legitimacy is determined by how fair and balanced the participation processes across all stakeholders are perceived to be, especially when conflict occurs. Legitimacy is enhanced when:
- the processes for participation of all stakeholders are clearly stated and appropriate eg., there is a rationale for why some stakeholders are consulted while others are invited to become partners
- stakeholders feel that their interests have been understood and taken into account
- the multiple stakeholders involved are seen to be a balanced group
- unbiased facilitators are used where possible.
Researchers are unlikely to be able to meet all of these criteria to the satisfaction of all stakeholders, but stakeholders will generally recognise and appreciate when a genuine and reasonable attempt is being made.
2. Accommodating stakeholder motivations, expertise and ability to participate
The stakeholders involved in the research will have a range of motivations for participating, will differ in the expertise they have to offer and will vary in their ability to participate. When researchers take the time to understand and accommodate stakeholder motivations, expertise and constraints, it sends a signal that the stakeholder contributions are valued.
Motivations can be identified through questions such as:
- what do different stakeholders hope the research will achieve?
- what change do different stakeholders want to see?
- are stakeholders looking to further an existing relationship with the researchers or is this project building a new relationship?
- what will the stakeholders get out of being involved?
Motivation can be enhanced when researchers provide results, feedback and other information to stakeholders in a timely manner.
Expertise can be identified through questions such as:
- what knowledge do different stakeholders possess that may be relevant to the research?
- do the stakeholders have skills, access (eg., to people or resources), or other capabilities that may be useful for the research?
- what views (positive or negative) do the stakeholders hold about the research and its outcomes?
- is there potential for conflict arising amongst stakeholders or between stakeholders and the research?
The ability of stakeholders to contribute their expertise is enhanced when they are treated respectfully, their knowledge is valued and their contributions are recognised in a meaningful way (including through intellectual property rights).
Ability to participate can be identified through questions such as:
- how much time is required for the envisaged participation?
- can employed stakeholders contribute as part of their substantive employment?
- will stakeholders, especially those with low incomes, be recompensed for their participation?
- are there political or other risks for the stakeholders in being formally associated with the research? If yes, how can these be ameliorated?
- are there technical, physical, linguistic, geographical, information, knowledge or other barriers to participation?
The ability of stakeholders to participate can be enhanced when:
- they are given an opportunity to plan their own participation, which may differ at different stages of the research
- there are clear expectations, including about what can and cannot be changed
- participation opportunities are tailored to the needs of the stakeholders, for example, bringing the project to them at locations and times that suit their needs, and ensuring that stakeholder meetings are culturally appropriate for all participants
- project communications are understandable and tailored to stakeholder preferences and needs.
3. Avoiding or managing potential pitfalls
Two damaging pitfalls are stakeholder fatigue and stakeholder disillusionment.
Stakeholder fatigue occurs when the same stakeholders are asked to participate in multiple different research projects. This happens when particular research topics become popular, attracting multiple research efforts and often also multiple PhD and other student projects.
There are no easy answers to stakeholder fatigue. Researchers and stakeholders may be able to work together to share the same stakeholder inputs across several projects.
Stakeholder disillusionment can occur during a project or be a legacy of past involvement in research. Disenchantment during a project can result from a failure to manage credibility, relevance and legitimacy as discussed above, particularly when communication is poor or expectations are not met.
Stakeholders can also feel let down from previous involvement in research. In addition to a failure to manage credibility, relevance and legitimacy, disenchantment can also result when researchers failed to keep their promises to stakeholders, as discussed in the primer blog post on options for engagement. Stakeholders may not even have been informed of the outcomes of the research.
Researchers can only influence what happens in their own projects. By attending to the issues discussed in this blog post and keeping promises made to stakeholders, they give their own projects the best possible chance of succeeding and make it more likely that stakeholders will be willing to participate in research in future.
Anything to add?
Particularly welcome are examples of how you:
- ensured the credibility, relevance and legitimacy of stakeholder contributions
- accommodated stakeholder motivations, expertise and ability to participate
- avoided or managed potential pitfalls in your own research and as your contribution to future research.
If you are new to stakeholder engagement, is there anything else on making engagement effective that would be useful?
If you have engaged with stakeholders in your research, what would you add to the description above? Do you have lessons from experience to share?
Sources and references:
The main source is the report on stakeholder engagement by Durham and colleagues, which has been modified. They, in turn, drew on the work of others, which is cited in the reference below.
Durham E., Baker H., Smith M., Moore E. and Morgan V. (2014). BiodivERsA Stakeholder Engagement Handbook. ERA-NET BiodivERsA: Paris, France. (Online): 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:
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)
5. Choosing engagement options (November 11, 2021)
This blog post:
6. Making engagement effective (November 18, 2021)
Still to come:
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)
8 thoughts on “Stakeholder engagement primer: 6. Making engagement effective”
Thanks Gabriele for this interesting topic.
I would like discuss the motivation key. As mentioned in the blog: “Accommodating stakeholders motivation: is this project building a new relationship?” One of the challenging stage in the transdisciplinary project that the researcher facing is: reaching the different stakeholders. I believe that strong communications and understanding the aspects of the problem of the research are essential keys for accommodating stakeholder motivation.
Thanks Manal. As you suggest there are many things to consider for effective stakeholder engagement and that good communication is key. I agree that it is particularly important to learn from stakeholders what they can contribute to understanding and acting on a problem and that their motivation to be involved will increase if they feel they can make a real contribution.
Another good blog, thank you. The following stuck with me in particular:
“[Legitimate if] stakeholders feel that their interests have been understood and taken into account”
This highlights the need for an open and reflexive adaptive process on SHE (stakeholder engagement) throughout an action. A question, to what extent do you think an outcome could/should be considered ‘invalid / illegitimate’ (so to speak) if a certain proportion of SH felt unheard / misrepresented etc..? Thinking particularly of recent COP26 criticisms, for example.
Thanks Matt – that’s an important question. One thing it highlights is that there is much that an introduction, which this primer aims to be, cannot cover. Second, there is a lot of conceptual and methodological development to undertake for those interested in research integration and implementation – which is the focus of Integration and Implementation Sciences (http://i2s.anu.edu.au). Cases, such as COP26, provide good examples for reflection and further development of concepts, methods and processes.
Given that there are no perfect answers to complex societal and environmental issues, it is likely that there will always be a proportion of stakeholders who feel unheard. I suggest that it makes an outcome imperfect, but not necessarily invalid or illegitimate. It would be great to get other views. This is certainly an area that would benefit from further investigation.
Great post. Love the identification of three foci: credibility, relevance, and legitimacy. It’s interesting to think about the word ‘stakeholder’. For instance, doesn’t the researcher have a stake in the research? Some have suggested that we stop using the term stakeholder (https://aea365.org/blog/as-an-evaluator-do-i-use-words-e-g-stakeholder-that-can-be-harmful-to-others-by-goldie-macdonald-anita-mclees/) but their suggested replacements don’t identify the evaluator/researcher as a stakeholder. I push the issue a little for us to think about our location as researchers/evalutors in our work. Are we part of the system, observers of the system, unwittig interveners in the system we inhabit and study? Certainly, we have a stake in the research/evaluation. How might we draw and describe our relationships to other stakeholders and the issues under study? How do those relatinoships affect the credibility, relevance, and legitimacy of the work?
Thanks Kirsten. For this primer series of blog posts I made the choice not to include researchers as stakeholders, because otherwise the exposition gets confusing. This introductory series is written from the perspective of the researchers and covers engagement with 1) those affected by the problem of interest and 2) those in a position to do something about the problem (see Primer #1: https://i2insights.org/2021/10/14/defining-stakeholders/). I agree that researchers should think carefully about a) their own position and b) the language that is most suitable in their circumstances.
Thanks Gabriele for a nice summary of some very important engagement concepts. I come to this discussion more as a specialist in the art and science of engagement and collaboration than as a researcher and have seen engagement done well and not well over the years. In recent years we’ve come to realise that good engagement is about how a team or organisations thinks and acts, more than about what they intend. So an additional pitfallI I’d suggest would be the risk of disconnection between the words and intention on one hand (ie “we will engage with you”) and the thinking, culture and behaviours on the other. It can be difficult for many of us to recognise the changes we need to make to business as usual if we are to authentically engage. This is where disengagement, disillusionment and disinterest often stem from. You can download a summary of this argument here: https://bit.ly/3wzdYOn
Many thanks. I agree that it is important to recognise the disconnect that often exists between intention and practice.
One way of approaching this is to lay out different options for engagement (not just collaboration), that can all be appropriate depending on the circumstances. I set out to do this in Primer #4 (https://i2insights.org/2021/11/04/options-for-engagement/) and would argue that if what researchers are really doing is consultation, they should call it that and do it as well as possible.
Another approach is your set of arguments regarding the “fairytale” of collaboration compared with that’s really needed and how to move from intention to reality – very helpful – thanks!