'...participation is an ongoing and iterative, non-linear exchange with varying groups of stakeholders engaged in dynamic ways across the life cycle of a project or activity.'
Eleanor Sterling PhD -- Chief Conservation Scientist at the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History.
The above quotation is from a short post written by Dr. Sterling and published on the Integration and Implementation Insights blog (a community weblog for researchers who are interested in better concepts and methods for understanding and acting on complex real-world problems – problems like refugee crises, global climate change, and inequality).
Dr. Sterling is emphasising that engaging with stakeholders as part of an attempt to solve complex problems is a difficult and demanding task: it involves different and diverse people in different ways at different times (not all of which will be predictable at the outset of a project).
Dr. Sterling's post briefly describes some established thinking about 'stages of participation' and then outlines the main conclusions arising from work she and her colleagues have done on stakeholder engagement within the field of biodiversity conservation.
Dr. Sterling's conclusions emphasise the importance of rejecting a traditional stepped and to some extent 'one size fits all' approach to stakeholder engagement in favour of one which is flexible and pragmatic, involving varying groups of stakeholders at varying levels of intensity and using different methods at different times according to need and context.
At first glance, this seems a straightforward conclusion. However, traditional thinking about participation (again, see Dr. Sterling's post for a description of some of this) has often blinkered perceptions. Arguably, it has encouraged us to focus upon 'the best way to engage with stakeholders' rather than 'the best way to engage with stakeholders to solve the problem'.
And it is easy to see how separating the challenge of stakeholder engagement from the problem a project has been tasked to address could create the additional problems of engagement fatigue and stakeholder disengagement.
If best practice for stakeholder engagement degrades into dogma and becomes ever-more distant from the challenges and context of the problem to be addressed, we can begin to assume that some types of stakeholder engagement are always better than others and should always take place at specific times in specific ways (regardless of the context within which they occur).
This increases the risk of stakeholders becoming restive and expressing frustration about what is being done to address the problems important to them (and, understandably, to begin questioning what they are being invited to engage with and why). If no credible answers are given to these questions, engagement fatigue and disengagement will quickly follow.
So, explicitly linking stakeholder engagement with the problem to be solved is essential. It is not, however, a simple process. This is because the majority of problems people are brought together to solve are complex and multi-layered: the problems and their components are experienced in different ways at different times by different people at different levels; the essential nature of the problem may not change but the way it manifests depends upon its context.
Imagine a set of Russian dolls. Imagine that each doll-within-a-doll has the same overall shape and structure but that each one is decorated or clothed differently. This goes a little of the way towards illustrating the nature of a complex problem when perceived as possessing a multi-layered structure.
It is within the nature of the above complexity, however, that a way of exploring and navigating the problem and linking it to methods of stakeholder engagement may be found.
Once the fundamental elements of the problem are known and the levels within which it manifests have been identified (e.g., global, regional, local, individual; or organisational, divisional, team, individual, etc.) then stakeholders from the various levels of the problem can be identified and brought together to discuss how their version of the problem looks and feels and how it may be best addressed.
Additionally, the engagement methods used can be easily tailored to the needs of specific groups of stakeholders and their contexts. To use a simple example, the 'higher levels' of the problem may require formal and high-profile senior sponsored strategic interventions and the 'lower levels' may need informal and low-key community supported tactical interventions.