By Gabriele Bammer
Once researchers understand the basics of stakeholder engagement, what else is it useful for them to know? What additional concepts, methods and processes are helpful additions to their skill set so that they can engage more effectively?
Two areas for building additional skills are considered here:
- Understanding and managing power and control
- Working effectively with multiple stakeholders.
These areas are ripe for consolidation of existing knowledge and experience, as well as of useful tools. Here only some considerations are sketched out, drawing predominantly on key contributions to the i2Insights blog.
Understanding and managing power and control
In this primer, researcher power and control are treated as follows:
- In developing a more comprehensive understanding of a problem, researchers determine who will be defined as a stakeholder, who will be invited to participate, how they will be invited to contribute and what resources will be provided for the engagement.
- When researchers seek to support policy and practice change, control shifts. The policy and practice decision makers decide whether and how to invite research contributions.
In brief, researchers control the research, while policy and practice decision makers control any actions taken.
Focusing further on the research: the formal and informal forces that shape research agenda setting and knowledge production are, of course, much more complex. An underdeveloped area is the role of stakeholders, especially those who are affected by the problem being researched, and, in turn, the implications for stakeholder engagement.
As already noted in the primer blog post on selecting stakeholders, researchers can seek to use their power to legitimise the concerns of marginalised stakeholders. But there are also other considerations when engaging stakeholders who have indigenous knowledge, local knowledge, lived experience or another form of “non-certified expertise”. These include:
- Whether researchers want to position themselves as advocates or honest brokers.
- The necessity of creating the conditions where marginalized stakeholders can freely express their concerns and ideas, allowing them to co-create or co-redesign services or strategies. This includes the ability to speak in the language in which they are most fluent.
- The challenges for peer-researchers of sharing power with their peers, which include the impact of systemic injustices, the perceptions of peers about their power, risks of contaminating the research, and structural issues.
- The challenges of appropriately recognizing indigenous and local knowledge in planning and conducting research that engages such stakeholders. Considerations include:
- whether ingrained academic ways of knowing need to be “unlearnt” and funding rules changed to enable appropriate compensation of stakeholders.
- the ability to swap leader (or senior) and follower (or junior) roles, as in the New Zealand Māori tuākana-tēina model, which recognises that different people have expertise in different contexts.
- whether to employ a “circle of dialogue wisdom” process that seeks to reconceptualise participation, empowerment and collaboration, including by knowing each other, building affection, creating safe spaces and opening possibilities for co-creating solutions.
- recognising partial overlaps in researcher and stakeholder perspectives allowing for intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding, as well as negotiation of differences. Particularly important are knowledge production and validation (epistemology), ethical reasoning, and fundamental differences in how researchers and stakeholders view and relate to the world (ontology). Art can be a helpful way to bridge gaps in understanding.
- engaging in “slow research” to enable high quality engagement that is built over time and that can explicitly address power differences, as these “imprint” the knowledge produced.
Working effectively with multiple stakeholders
Many research projects tackle problems that affect, and are affected by, multiple stakeholders. There is currently little consolidated guidance for researchers to help them decide when to engage stakeholders one at a time versus when and how to bring different stakeholders together.
Engaging stakeholders one at a time requires the researchers to act as honest brokers and engage in a form of “shuttle diplomacy” to find commonalities and resolve conflicts among the different stakeholders. This can work well when researchers are in control of problem framing and the research process and outcomes, but is more challenging when collaboration is the aim. In addition, separate processes may be the only option when stakeholders are in conflict and unwilling to engage with each other, or when power differentials would prevent marginalized stakeholders from participating fully in a multistakeholder process.
Despite the challenges, an important advantage of bringing different stakeholders together is that they can hear and learn from each other and in the process become more aware of the complexities of the problem and of responding to it, as well as potentially developing new ways of taking effective action.
Conducting multistakeholder engagement requires significant investment by researchers in skill development, both in specific methods as well as nimbleness in managing processes and conflicts as they develop. As outlined in the primer blog post on listening and dialogue, increased skill levels are required to move an engagement from an exchange of perspectives (engaged monologue), to seeking to learn about the perspectives of others and find common ground (reflective dialogue), to creating new ideas building on common ground by taking advantage of persistent misunderstanding and disagreement (generative dialogue).
There are many dialogue methods that can be used singly and in combination, including:
- those compiled by Brouwer and Woodhill (2019, which also comes with a guide to multistakeholder engagement) and Durham et al. (2014).
- Liberating structures principles and methods.
- Theory U and presencing
Models and serious games can provide productive foundations for generating dialogue in multistakeholder engagement, although they also require significant investment in skill development to either be able to build models and games or to collaborate with modellers and developers. For example, by concentrating on the strengths and weaknesses of a neutral and unfeeling model, multistakeholder groups can discuss sensitive topics including identifying what all or some of them don’t know, as well as false assumptions.
Serious games are simulations of social or environmental problems as – usually – board games or video games. They can be built on generic problems such as the tragedy of the commons or real cases. Games can be particularly powerful when they incorporate role-play, where stakeholders do not play as themselves, but rather as a different stakeholder. For example, a government policy maker can take the role of a farmer, the farmer representative can take the role of a business leader and so on. This can allow stakeholders to gain much more effective insights into the specific problems others face and the constraints they are working under, which are consolidated during post-game discussion and debriefing.
The conditions laid out in the primer blog post on listening and dialogue are also relevant for multistakeholder dialogue. Additional issues include:
- careful attention to the social and physical characteristics of real and virtual spaces where multistakeholder engagement occurs, also known as scaffolding to create bridges between people.
- facilitation to enhance communication and interpersonal relationships, expression of personal attitudes and feelings to improve awareness and understanding, and creation of common ground focused on the problem.
- “rituals” such as introductions, setting ground rules and turn-taking, as well as making room for and participating in the rituals of other cultures in inter-cultural research settings.
- managing discomfort, which is essential to prompt enquiry and learning, while avoiding stress-inducing discomfort that can block learning.
- dealing with and learning from failure, including:
- bad choices in stakeholder selection, which occur, for example, when the selected stakeholders turn out to be disruptive, have epistemic vices such as arrogance, closed-mindedness and unwillingness to listen, or turn out to be ill-informed or non-representative. Starting the engagement with a trial period can be a useful strategy to ameliorate such problems early.
- processes which go awry, for example, through lack of experience in facilitation.
Anything to add?
Particularly welcome are examples of how you have dealt with issues of power and control and/or multistakeholder engagement in your research.
If you are new to stakeholder engagement, is there anything else on advanced skills for stakeholder engagement that would be useful?
If you have engaged with stakeholders in your research, are there other advanced skills that you would suggest? Is there anything you wish you had known when you were developing your skill set? Do you have lessons from experience to share?
This is the final blog post in this primer series for stakeholder engagement. Do you agree with the allocation of basic and advanced skills, or would you assign skills differently? What other introductory and advanced skills would you add?
Sources and Reference:
In addition to my own research and experience, the sources for this blog post are the blog posts cited, plus the references cited below.
Brouwer, H. and Woodhill, J. with Hemmati, M,, Verhoosel, K. and van Vugt, S. (2019). The MSP Guide, How to design and facilitate multi-stakeholder partnerships, 3rd edition. Wageningen University and Research, Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation (WCDI): Wageningen, The Netherlands; and, Practical Action Publishing: Rugby, United Kingdom. (Online): https://mspguideorg.files.wordpress.com/2021/12/the_msp_guide_3rd_ed_2019_wcdi_brouwer_woodhill.pdf (PDF 2MB); the toolkit is also available at https://mspguideorg.wordpress.com/the-msp-tool-guide/
Durham E., Baker H., Smith M., Moore E. and Morgan V. (2014). BiodivERsA Stakeholder Engagement Handbook. ERA-NET BiodivERs. 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:
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)
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)
This blog post:
10. Advanced skills (December 16, 2021)