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)