Engaging Stakeholders

Really engaging stakeholders on an equal basis is a time-consuming process, in which every stakeholder has to be personally involved, engaged and brought on board. Not by telling, but by exchange of opinions, concerns, dreams and knowledge. Usually, there is no ‘quick fix’ and it is crucial to realize up front, that engaging with stakeholders is a long-term investment that needs long-term commitment. And, perhaps most importantly, it needs you to ask yourself two key questions:

Why should the stakeholder want to engage with me? How can I help him/her realize his/her dreams and goals?

Am I really willing to take action on the issues that concern the stakeholder? And do I have the mandate to commit to taking actions?

If you don’t have a positive answer to these two questions, then you are not yet ready to engage – you will just be wasting stakeholders’ time.

The ‘Forum Approach’

For many years, I have been working successfully with the so-called Forum Approach (similar to the Mutual Gains Approach developed by the Consensus Building Institute, Cambridge, MA) that has been developed by IMSA Amsterdam and has its theoretical basis in the discourse theories of Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault. Within this approach a steady increase of insight, knowledge, rumour, goodwill, direction and, finally, decisions is being created among relevant stakeholders. Eventually, the outcome is consensus about a proposition, which contains gains for all stakeholders. This outcome is often confirmed in a covenant/social contract, signed by all key stakeholders, including regulators.Dia2

Key to the method is the sequential filling of the ‘Five Glasses’ of policy development (see figure). Though this process is described below as if each ‘glass’ is filled entirely before continuing to the next ‘glass’ this is not the case: key is to start at the left and to continuously make sure that glasses early in the cycle are always ‘fuller’ than those later in the cycle. For example, a certain level of external communication is unavoidable as soon as external stakeholders are being involved, but then the communication should be about the vision and the process leading towards actual measures rather than about results that are in fact not yet certain.

Creating a Vision

Before engaging with stakeholders, it is key to create a strong vision or proposition on desirable future developments regarding a certain issue or region. In order to be attractive to other stakeholders, this vision should contain potential gains for them, too.

Gathering & Analyzing Existing Knowledge

The next step is to collect and analyse existing knowledge – scientific evidence, facts, actions being taken – relating to this vision and to the current state of affairs: what are the areas of scientific consensus, what are the areas of disagreement or knowledge gaps, what are the key issues (problems, challenges, opportunities) arising from this scientific knowledge base and what needs to be further researched in order to address these issues? This exercise may lead you to adapting your vision, before you actually go out and talk to stakeholders.


In the networking phase, key stakeholders are identified and confronted with the vision/proposition and the conclusions arising from the knowledge-building step. Stakeholders are engaged in individual sessions and in multi-stakeholder fora, where they are invited to present their own vision, needs, concerns and perceptions of the facts in a very open manner and – importantly – on a confidential basis.

The networking phase strives to achieve several objectives: to build a relationship with and between relevant stakeholders; to understand stakeholders’ underlying interests; to understand how existing knowledge (including knowledge gaps) is interpreted and used; to understand the relationships between various stakeholders and to identify opportunities for win-win collaboration. On the basis of the results of the networking phase, the vision is revised and the knowledge base is further developed together with (expert) stakeholders. In this stage elevation of knowledge is key: by gathering and sharing the combined knowledge of different scientific and stakeholder communities, new insights arise that allow stakeholders to review original positions and come up with new opportunities and solutions. Without this elevation and basic agreement on a joint vision, stakeholders will tend to attempt to question or adapt the facts as it turns out that they inherently present them with unwelcome dilemmas when it comes to practical measures or actions. In complex networks with many different interests and/or fixed, contrary positions it is necessary to involve the network gradually, by first checking vision and knowledge with a core group of opinion leaders and then broaden the process to encompass the entire stakeholder network. That way, the core group may help to guide and structure discussions in the broader stakeholder network, to break through taboos and fixed positions and to engage stakeholders who might otherwise tend to keep aside.

Taking Action

Eventually, the process enters the phase in which actual measures or actions are defined, needed to implement the vision that has now become a joint vision. This phase essentially is about defining packages of measures that create win-win solutions to various dilemma’s and issues on the way towards implementing the vision. It is a process, in which all stakeholders are supposed to give and take. If the previous phases have been done well, this will lead to a result that respects the underlying interests of all stakeholders rather than a traditional sub-optimal compromise, with which no one is really satisfied.

Telling Your Story

A communication strategy and a narrative around the vision have to be developed already early in the process, but that does not mean that it is generally a good idea to also start up wide communication around the process early. Until a programme of measures has been agreed, broad communication should take place only to the extent that this is needed to facilitate the consensus building process. A major risk of extensive media communication in an early stage of a stakeholder process is that it fixes stakeholder positions in an unwanted manner: if stakeholders publicly communicate a certain point of view it becomes difficult for them to revise this viewpoint in a later stage. Moreover, media communication risks to move negotiations from the informal, confidential scene of the Forum Approach to the public, formal scene of mass media, where the need for drama and conflict set the agenda and colour stakeholders’ messages.