The memo arrived addressed to ‘Dear Stake Holder’, so at first, I wondered whether it had been sent to the wrong address. Regrettably, the unusual formatting of the title ‘stakeholder’ did not encourage me to respond favourably to the request from the Government department that followed.
Stakeholder engagement is recognised as a key element of policy advocacy, whether by Governments or by groups seeking to influence policy decisions. Who are these ‘stakeholders’, and what do we mean when we describe them with this term?
Those who have a ‘stake’ in the outcomes of policy deliberation may be the public, consumers, members, or other beneficiaries of a proposed policy. They may also be parties who are negatively affected by the introduction of policy measures such as new taxes or regulatory restrictions.
What is ‘at stake’ when we debate policy options is one of the key dimensions for argument, especially when there are differences of opinion about what ‘good’ is sought from the implementation of a proposed policy measure.
We ‘stake’ out our ground when we articulate our point of view, and the arguments and evidence supporting that position.
In our polarised dualistic system, we tend to see debates framed around concepts of public benefit versus private or vested interests. We also hear populist arguments based on ‘lifters and leaners’ (Australia) or ‘makers and takers’ (US), which again seek to polarise views in a debate around values of altruism or independence.
These simplistic analyses fail to allow for those who genuinely care about the needs of disadvantaged people in society, but wish to promote citizen independence rather than welfare dependency. Nor do they allow for notions of professionalism, in which the welfare of the patient or client is the top priority, whilst greater remuneration or reward is available for those with the highest skills.
Cost-benefit analyses and the pros and cons of a proposal need to be assessed from the perspectives of all ‘stakeholders’ before the final design of a policy measure is determined, and the proposal is formally considered for adoption and implementation.
Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation characterises the levels of stakeholder engagement according to how symbolic or real their engagement is. Various forms of engagement are classified in three groups labelled non-participation, tokenism and citizen power. Interestingly, informing and consulting stakeholders are both considered forms of tokenism, while serious engagement requires partnership (co-design) or ownership/control. This is an important insight for not-for-profit organisations, as much as it is for governments.