Multi-stakeholder discussion group

An approach to involve stakeholders in accompanying a (research) project.

What is a «multi-stakeholder discussion group»?

The multi-stakeholder discussion group brings together representatives of science, civil society, the private and the public sector to work on the development and implementation of a (research) project. The group meets several times for a facilitated exchange process on equal footing.

Why should it be applied?

Spaces where researchers and actors from civil society, the private and the public sector meet and exchange experiences on an equal footing are crucial for successfully co-producing knowledge – even before the project starts. Such spaces allow to build trust and an understanding for different perspectives (thought styles), as well as expressing and sharing tacit knowledge. A facilitated multi-stakeholder discussion group, running in parallel to an on-going research project, provides such spaces.

When should it be applied?

The multi-stakeholder discussion group should be applied when it is evident that specific societal actors are relevant for the project, but not yet strongly enough involved in the project.
It is also helpful when tacit knowledge, values and practices might be key for co-producing knowledge. See experience report.

Multi-stakeholder discussion group
Multi-stakeholder discussion groupImage: P. Fry

How does it work?

1) The project leader identifies the societal groups relevant for the project. He or she may conduct a stakeholder analysis (e.g. Bryson 2006) – or an actor constellation – and make use of the networks of project collaborators. He or she selects about 10 representatives. It is advisable to choose representatives from the most relevant institutions, associations and networks related to the societal problem addressed in the project. Key persons with a large network will be helpful. In order to support the bridging of thought styles within the group, it is helpful if some of them are intermediaries between science and practice or between different disciplines so that they can help bridge the gaps. Besides thematic knowledge the selected representatives should have high communicative competencies.

2) Choose an appropriate title for the project with positive connotations, as a bridging concept that speaks to all actor groups.

3) Select a skilful and credible moderator to facilitate social interactions between participants.

He or she should help creating an appropriate setting and encourage exchange on an equal footing, appreciation of various thought styles and mutual learning.

4) The project leader invites the members to join the multi-stakeholder discussion group. The expectations towards the group and its members are made explicit.

5) Before the project starts, the project leader organises a first workshop in collaboration with the moderator. The first meeting serves to get to know each other, experience the different views and thought styles from the various participants. Also, the project aims and the roles of the participants are clarified.

In order to express and share different perspectives, the meeting may be started with a round of personal introductions. Members are asked to describe their experiences and explain their views on the topic. Travelling, coffee breaks, lunch and apéros enable social interaction - a core element for building bridges between the thought collectives.

Questions that should be discussed are:

  • Goals: What are the aims of the project and why did the project leader build the group?
  • Priorities and contributions: What are the views of the participants from science and practice with respect to the project topic and which expertise can they contribute? Depending on the outcomes, rephrase the research questions and project plan.
  • Meeting schedule: How often and at what stages of the project does it make sense for the group to meet?
  • Meeting places: Where and how does the group meet? To promote mutual understanding and exchange on equal footing, every stakeholder could host a meeting (e.g. according to project phases).
    In order to allow tacit knowledge to emerge, the working context of the stakeholders may be used as meeting places and informal activities such as walks, excursions and demonstrations may be scheduled.
  • Responsibilities: What are the rights and duties of the group members? Is the task of the group to exchange knowledge and/or to make decisions?
  • Rules for knowledge co-production: What rules of confidentiality and decision-making do apply?

6) The group then meets regularly according to the decided plan.

7) Organise a final meeting, e.g. a vernissage preferably connected to a stakeholder event to show the project’s achievements as well as the multi-stakeholder discussion group’s contribution to it.

How are thought styles bridged?

Thought styles are bridged by the repeated personal exchange on equal footing, in particular social interactions within the multi-stakeholder discussion group, as well as an openly designed exchange process which regards all stakeholders as experts. Participants learn about knowledge demands, interests and context conditions of the others, but also about their concerns, values, emotions, and daily routines. This mutual learning provides a sound basis to align the project plan in a way that it is beneficial to all.

What’s the output/outcome?

The output is a research question and research plan adapted to the perspectives of stakeholders. The outcome is a better understanding of the different interests, expectations and positions as well as an appreciation of system, target and transformation knowledge, and different skills as well as experiential knowledge (Fry/Thieme 2019). Participants gain trust and respect for different perspectives. They may develop ownership for the project’s concern.

Who participates in what role?

The participants represent a specific group of stakeholders from science and practice. The project leader initiates the process and participates as a stakeholder (of academia). The moderator acts as facilitator of the process and not as an expert on the research topic.

What do I need to prepare?

The project leader identifies a facilitator who has the skills to act as an intermediary between the different stakeholders. Together they choose a suited meeting place for the first meeting. It should be related to the topic and meaningful to all stakeholders. Visualisation of the inputs and outputs may be planned in advance.

When not to use the method?

It does not make sense to use this method when the research question addresses system knowledge only, the issues are not contested, the level of actor diversity is low and actors’ interests and existing collaborations between actors is small (see Schneider and Buser 2018).

td-net toolbox – Multi-stakeholder discussion group
Image: td-net

Fry P 2018. Social learning videos: A Method for successful collaboration between science and practice. In: Padmanabhan M (ed). Transdisciplinarity: How research is changing to meet the challenges of sustainability. Routledge Studies in Environment, Culture and Society. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Fry P, Thieme S 2019. A social learning video method: Identifying and sharing successful transformation knowledge for sustainable soil management in Switzerland. Soil Use and Management 35: 185-194.