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2.3.9 Key concepts of stakeholder dialogue

Contents Positions, interests, needs Consensus, compromise Roles and responsibilities Stakeholder dialogue process ground rules Confidentiality Decision-making Reporting Presence of the press

When initiating a stakeholder dialogue, participants may immediately want to start talking about content issues. It should be outlined, however, that discussion of certain process elements is necessary in order to maximise participants’ ownership of the process and to begin developing common ground [NDA-2005]. Positions, interests, needs

Situations with high levels of uncertainty often result in a conversation that is largely positional (i.e., defending the own position, attacking the others’ position). In more complex situations judgements over right and wrong may be difficult, however. In order to avoid positional conversations it is necessary to clarify the background of these positions. Therefore, it should be discovered what are the interests of the stakeholders or the organisation(s) involved and what are their needs (Figure 2.5).

Figure 2.5 Positions, interest and needs of stakeholders and organisation(s) involved
Figure 2.5 Positions, interest and needs of stakeholders and organisation(s) involved

The more the interests and the needs of the different parties are explored, the more the interests and the needs that are in common should appear which should result in an area of overlap. There will always be issues that participants cannot fully agree on, but participants should understand this and focus on common grounds and agreements. In practice, this starts from gaining common ground on the process. Consensus, compromise

If two parties are working towards agreement on an issue, the percentage of the needs of each party that are met will vary depending on the outcome. Outcomes may occur anywhere along the neutral line of compromise (Figure 2.6). Traditional decision-making processes tend to work towards the middle of the line of compromise, giving 50% each. In complex circumstances, these decisions often tend not to stand the test of time. Power and influence may be exercised leading to the potential for increasingly adversarial positions.

Figure 2.6 Possible outcomes of stakeholder involvement processes
Figure 2.6 Possible outcomes of stakeholder involvement processes

Consensus-building processes should enable parties to reach more of their needs. These kind of processes start to provide invisible benefits (for example an extended network, a greater understanding of the issues and the underlying complexities and problems) as well as the usual visible benefits (for example reports, hard outputs). In order for such a process to be able to work it is essential to give it solid foundations and to get the process right at the start.

During the consensus-building process, the participants should remain in contact with their wider groups and their aims. The participants should keep their wider groups updated and return the views of these groups to the meeting room. Roles and responsibilities

Within any stakeholder dialogue process a number of key roles and responsibilities may be defined:

  • The decision-maker(s) – who makes decisions informed by the process.
  • The organisation(s) involved – the organisation(s) responsible for initiating the process and providing funding.
  • The convenor – an independent third party responsible for designing and managing the process. This will usually include one key individual with overall responsibility for process and running meetings, the facilitator. She/he may be supported by others as co-facilitators, project managers etc.
  • The stakeholders – who represent different groups and are brought together by the convenor to discuss the issues with the decision-maker(s).
  • The evaluator – who reviews the process and its success.
  • Reporter and expert roles may be defined if necessary or valuable.

It is recommended to define these roles as they may be confused. The decision-maker and the organisation(s) involved are often the same and some evaluation is usually carried out by the convenor. Separating the role of convenor from the decision-maker(s) and organisation(s) involved may be crucial for maintaining the integrity of the process.

Decision-maker/Organisation(s) involved: The decision-maker/organisation(s) involved should provide guidance on the framework of its stakeholder engagement, for example, guidance on the aim of stakeholder dialogue, definition of a national stakeholder, legal obligations the decision-maker/organisation(s) involved has to meet and the position on enabling stakeholders to participate in the dialogue through the provision of funds.

Convenor: The role of the convenor may be to ensure that the dialogue process and all its participants operate in accordance with agreed ground-rules and all stakeholders are treated equally from the very moment they enter the process. The convenor will also bring expertise and experience as to the best way to achieve the goals of the dialogue process. Although funded by the sponsor the convenor works on behalf of the dialogue process, i.e., all stakeholders.

Facilitator: The role of the facilitator is vital to achieving an effective outcome. He or she should aim to maintain productive dialogue by:

  • Providing working methods which enable contributions from all;
  • Offering practical frameworks which bring clarity and structure;
  • Managing time to best effect;
  • Encouraging clear communication;
  • Ensuring that a clear record of proceedings is maintained;
  • Making sure that discussions keep within agreed ground-rules and parameters;
  • Helping participants acknowledge common ground and build progress around it.

The facilitator should not take a view as to the best solution or on the content of the discussion. His focus should be on managing an effective process in which participants can find the best solution for themselves.

Stakeholders: The role of stakeholders (including the organisation(s) involved) is:

  • To participate fully and collaboratively in the discussions, this means being willing to listen to other points of view and without resorting to the re-iteration of well known negotiating positions;
  • To provide input to both the content and the process of discussions;
  • To abide by any ground-rules agreed by the group;
  • To represent their group fully by both inputting their group’s views to the discussions and provide feedback to their group in a timely manner.

Evaluator: The evaluator will regularly look for feedback from the stakeholders and the organisation(s) involved on how they could improve any aspect of the workshops and overall programme to make them more effective.

Other Roles: The stakeholder group may agree on the need and role of others such as reporters and experts under the guidance of the convenor. A reporter could be a person who would focus on producing a record of the meeting which could be used by stakeholders to refer to after the meeting and to brief their groups. In addition, not all stakeholders may have the same level of knowledge on all issues. So sometimes it may be necessary to provide an expert who can be utilised by stakeholders to supplement their own knowledge. This could be a technical expert or an expert on a particular decision making process. Stakeholder dialogue process ground rules

When initiating a stakeholder dialogue, the need to establish an open and interactive relationship with the stakeholders is recognised. All experience of consultation and dialogue projects suggests that overall ground-rules are needed in order to ensure that the stakeholder dialogue process will be as effective and clear as possible, to the benefit of everyone.

Ground-rules are to serve everyone involved. If a set is to be adopted, all participants should agree on it and all should be clear on why they are needed and what they should achieve.

As with all ground-rules, the intention is to enable participants to openly express their views and share information; it encourages free discussion – participants usually feel more relaxed if they do not have to worry about their reputation or implications if they are publicly quoted.

Ground-rules may cover anything which may disrupt the process of discussion, prevent other stakeholders from taking a full part, undermine the agreed process or create unnecessary conflicts. A typical coverage of a set of ground-rules may comprise:

  • The aim of the process;
  • Access to the process;
  • Responsibilities of participants;
  • Responsibilities of those in key roles;
  • Establishment, responsibilities of any sub-groups;
  • Information sharing and use;
  • How the process will be managed and the pre-dominant style(s) of working;
  • How decisions will be reached;
  • Internal and external communication;
  • Resources;
  • Meeting records and reports;
  • Evaluation and monitoring;
  • Anything else that stakeholders consider will help maintain a productive process.

In an ideal situation a stakeholder dialogue process should be started drafting ground-rules together for maximum buy-in and understanding. Once adopted, ground-rules should be kept as an open, working document for the duration of the process. Anyone in the process should be able to suggest changes to existing ground-rules, or propose new ones at anytime.

Ground-rules should be morally binding. They have no legal standing and are only as valuable as participants’ willingness to respect them and abide by them. Working within ground-rules is a matter of trust and respect and it is crucial that they are understood and ‘owned’ by all those who participate in the process that they support.

Operating within the structure of an agreed set of ground-rules is considered to be a continuing act of commitment to the process, by every stakeholder, and an act of respect to other participants. Seriously breaching a ground-rule is usually considered to be a withdrawal of commitment and an act of disrespect. In these circumstances the convenor may require the party concerned to formally withdraw from the process. The convenor should look for the views of a range of stakeholders in making judgements about whether or not a stakeholder should be asked to formally withdraw, but the decision rests with the convenor, whose independence is vital at such times. Confidentiality

Total confidentiality will not be appropriate in a stakeholder dialogue process, but might be in small group discussions on complex issues. Ground-rules should aid the process in this respect. Decision-making

It is important to provide clarity over how decisions will be made, including who will be responsible for decisions, what the dominant style of working will be, and how stakeholder views will get incorporated in the conclusions. Reporting

The need to choose how to make meeting outputs open and transparent in the most digestible manner to the widest possible audience should be identified. In general, it will be important to make primary source documentation requested by issue groups publicly available.

A distinction could be made between supplying information when asked and providing information by a separate primary publishing route. Within a policy of openness and transparency, it should be the intention to make any reports produced public as soon as possible. This may not include, unless a valid reason for not doing so is provided, documents which some stakeholders may be used to remaining confidential to the stakeholder process, such as ‘photo reports’ and ‘working documents’ (documents not in the public domain and only released to dialogue participants within the dialogue’s ground-rules).

In addition, the participants in the stakeholder dialogue process should decide how they want their meetings to be recorded. If the participants feels that having their meeting reports made public will not be conducive to them discussing the issues freely enough, then other arrangements will have to be agreed for a record of the meeting to be made public.

In any case, the convenor should hold a library of the documents distributed to the participants in the stakeholder dialogue process. Presence of the press

The stakeholders should discuss if/how they wish to communicate with the press and the public and whether they should be allowed as observers at meetings within the stakeholder dialogue process.

In the spirit of transparency and openness, there should be no reason why the press should be prevented from attending meetings within the stakeholder dialogue process to be able to report. However, there may be participants present not used to dealing with the press and public. With the press present these participants would refrain from saying things they do not want to be reported and in the context of a stakeholder dialogue process, it is considered to be important to remove any barriers to productive conversations. In addition, it could be discussed not to have press or public in meetings within the stakeholder dialogue process in order to avoid discussions becoming inhibited. Separate press briefings in conjunction with main meetings may be an alternative option that the stakeholder group could consider.