Stakeholder engagement: making it effective

Purpose: To identify key processes for successfully involving stakeholders in research.

Description: Effective engagement with stakeholders involves: a) understanding their motivations, expertise and ability to engage, b) making engagement credible, relevant and legitimate, c) understanding what makes engagement successful and d) avoiding or managing challenges to engagement.

Understanding your stakeholders

It is helpful to understand stakeholder “motivations, interests, expertise and capacity to engage when considering how and when to engage with them” (Durham et al., 2014: 46). Key issues to consider include:

  • “Is there an existing relationship between the project and the stakeholders? Do relationships already exist between stakeholders?
  • What knowledge do the different stakeholders possess that may be relevant to the project?
  • What views are the stakeholders likely to hold about the project and its outcomes, will these views be positive or negative? Is there the potential for any conflict arising amongst stakeholders or between stakeholders and the project?
  • What are the appropriate means of communication and will this need to be adapted in order to reach certain groups or individuals?
  • Is there a willingness to engage; if not, why not, and how could this be overcome? Are there any barriers to participation and/or engagement (eg. technical, physical, linguistic, geographical, political, time, information or knowledge)?” (Durham et al., 2014: 46).

Make engagement credible, relevant and legitimate

“Credibility is the perceived quality and validity of the stakeholder engagement process and the people involved with the engagement. To improve credibility, a stakeholder engagement process should”:

  • “have clear objectives”
  • “use the most appropriate people and methods”
  •  “avoid exclusion of those with opposing views”
  •  “be transparent”
  •  have some continuity “to ensure that knowledge and skills are built upon, and to maintain relationships and build trust” (Durham et al., 2014: 16).

“Relevance refers to the usefulness of the engagement process and its outcomes – how closely it relates to stakeholders and researchers needs, and how responsive the process is to changing needs.” It involves:

  • “identification of key stakeholders in the planning stages of the process”
  • “ensuring effective engagement and communication with them throughout”
  • “adopting understandable language for different stakeholder groups”
  • “ensuring the timing of the engagement, and particularly the outcomes of the engagement, is appropriate”
  • “being adaptable to changing circumstances” (Durham et al., 2014: 16).

“Relevance is key to motivating participation and ultimately having a real impact.”

“Legitimacy is the perceived fairness and balance of the stakeholder engagement process, and is particularly important in cases where conflict may occur.” It requires:

  • “a clearly stated, appropriate and agreed stakeholder engagement process, along with appropriate methods”
  • stakeholders feeling “satisfied that their interests have been taken into account appropriately”
  • “inclusion of a balanced group of multiple stakeholders” although this is challenging “if some of the stakeholders are viewed to be inappropriate by others in the group”
  • “unbiased facilitators to help run engagement activities” (Durham et al., 2014: 16).

It’s not always easy to balance credibility, relevance and legitimacy. “For example, making a link with policy makers may improve the relevance of the engagement process and its desired outcomes for some stakeholders, but may be perceived by others as affecting the legitimacy of the process” (Durham et al., 2014: 16).

Key aspects of successful engagement

  • “Engage in dialogue with stakeholders as equals and value their knowledge.
  • Give stakeholders the opportunity to help plan their own engagement.
  • Remember that not all stakeholders will have the same role or desire to be involved; not every stakeholder needs to be involved all of the time.
  • Where it is considered appropriate give stakeholders power to influence the course of the research project; embed them where suitable in the project team (e.g. via stakeholder advisory panels).
  • Use ‘knowledge brokers’ (who are connected to, and trusted by, different stakeholder groups) and experts in stakeholder engagement (including professional facilitators or science advocates) if project teams do not have the expertise or experience.
  • Address ethical issues, including intellectual property rights (IPR).
  • Manage expectations by being clear on what can or cannot change.
  • Be prepared to be flexible and adaptable, tailoring research activities and communication of findings (e.g. policy processes or topical issues) as required
  • Ensure communications can be easily understood by all stakeholders – do not use complex or technical language unless this is asked for by the stakeholder.
  • Tailor engagement to the practical and cultural needs of stakeholders, bringing the project to where they are, at times of the day and year that are suitable for them; where deemed appropriate, consider selecting or splitting groups according to gender or age.
  • Do not forget to provide feedback to stakeholders as soon as possible/in a timely manner” (Durham et al., 2014: 19-20).

Five challenges and how to avoid them

1. Stakeholder fatigue.
When stakeholders have been involved in research in the past, but have not seen any tangible outcomes, they may be reluctant to be involved in any further research. Options include:

  • avoid working with such groups

or if working with them:

  • ensure that there will be tangible outcomes
  • engage with opinion leaders “to persuade others that it is important to engage with the project” (Durham et al., 2014: 18).

2. Biased representation of stakeholders or key stakeholders missing
This can affect the legitimacy of the engagement. To avoid this conduct a systematic stakeholder analysis to identify:

  • those with influence
  • those with a significant interest, including the powerless and marginalised.

3. Power imbalances within stakeholder engagement activities
If particular individuals and agendas are dominant and others are not heard, this can lead to or exacerbate conflict. To avoid this:

  • use a professional facilitator if possible
  • conduct parallel activities for stakeholders where there are significant differences in power and/or who are in conflict
  • use methods that enable all participants to provide and comment on ideas, possibly anonymously.

4. Short-term engagement
Delivering benefits and impacts expected by stakeholders can be difficult when the engagement only lasts for the duration of the funding. Options include:

  • partnering with local organisations which can invest in outcomes after the research has ended
  • finding ways to fund on-going engagement to maintain relationships and possibly lay the foundations for future research.

5. Unrealistically high expectations
Stakeholders, especially those involved early in the process, can become disenchanted if their suggestions are not compatible with the scope of the research or are not funded. Manage expectations by:

  • making it clear that funding is uncertain during the project development phase
  • ensuring those with a strong interest in the research are involved
  • identify ideas that the project team may be able to work with immediately
  • update stakeholders as soon as possible with research plans to show which ideas have been integrated and why it was not possible to integrate others.

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Posted: June 2020
Last modified: June 2020