“Nothing without us about us”: The importance of stakeholder involvement in EU funded research

No viable solution can be applied at the local level without the involvement of local stakeholders. As an applied research project, MATILDE is well aware of this challenge and thus strives to include stakeholders’ knowledge in the identification of challenges as well as in the elaboration of solutions to address them. In this frame, the Carinthia University of Applied Sciences has coordinated the drafting of the Stakeholders Involvement Plan. We discuss the relevance and key aspects of such a plan with Mag. (FH) Marika Gruber.

Why does a research project like MATILDE need a plan to coordinate the participation of local stakeholders?

MATILDE is a research project with a big internal and external stakeholder landscape. Within the consortium, 12 research and 13 local partners in 10 countries work together to measure the social and economic impact of migration and third country nationals in rural and alpine regions. Yet the work of partners doesn’t happen in a void. Outside the consortium, a very heterogeneous landscape of stakeholders must be involved in the different phases of the project: political decision makers, public administrations, education and training institutions, research facilities and individual researchers, private businesses, EU-Level umbrella organizations, associations and clubs, NGOs, and non-organized/other interest groups. MATILDE acts with a mixed-methods and transdisciplinary, participatory approach. This means that throughout the project, we will use both quantitative and qualitative methods and that we will complement them with techniques enabling to assess the impact of migration in a given area together with people living there. Hence, the need to have a plan that details how to do that. 

Where does the notion of stakeholders’ involvement come from?

Following the approach “Nothing without us about us” (Hermes, 2006), citizen participation processes have gained particular importance to design measures and solutions with a need-centred way. This is crucial to answer actual needs on the one hand, and to devise solutions that are acceptable for the people working and living in a certain place. The MATILDE Stakeholder Involvement Plan serves research partners as a guide for stakeholder engagement in the different project tasks. Based on the approach of agile project management, stakeholder involvement is seen as a dynamic process that must adhere to high ethical principles and see stakeholder involvement as a continuous process. Different participation approaches, as civic engagement and empowerment processes, concept of citizen science (that posits an active role of citizens in knowledge creation), Helix models of innovation (that envisages the collaboration of researchers, the market, the state and media/public in the overcoming of existing conditions, see picture below), were used in the development of the Stakeholder Involvement Plan in order to incorporate the current state of research.

Figure 1. Visualization of the adapted Quadruple Helix model for MATILDE

What does it mean to conduct participatory research?

Since social actors have detailed knowledge about the circumstances of their own life and social environment, it would not be beneficial to reduce their part-taking to being passively consulted. Preferably, they should have an active part in the whole process by examining, engaging, interpreting and reflecting on their social world and forming their sense of identity (Hearne & Murphy, 2019).

Participatory research is never a purely academic undertaking, but always a joint project with non-scientific, social actors (von Unger, 2013).

Which roles are envisaged for local stakeholders?

Project stakeholders can play various roles, such as provision of knowledge, forecasting and estimation, evaluation, prioritization and transfer of knowledge or innovations, exchange, consultation and dialogue, implementation and multiplication. Different stages of stakeholder participation can be differentiated, starting by a simple information of stakeholders which is a very low level of participation, over open consultation processes and interactive involvement, to joint creation sessions, which form a very high level of involvement. These different stages are detailed in the image below, that summarizes the approach adopted in the MATILDE project.

Figure 2: Stages of involvement within the MATILDE project

Which are the steps and the tools for the identification of stakeholders?

First of all, the Plan aims to identify the various project stakeholders in the Stakeholder Landscape Matrix, which is part of the MATILDE Stakeholder Involvement Plan. This initial step is crucial to collect and map the stakeholders relevant to the project. Different creativity methods and joint discussions as well as brainstorming sessions can help in this step, for instance mind mapping, the 6-3-5 method, environmental analysis and the ABC method (for details, see MATILDE Stakeholder Plan, pp. 52-53)

Then, in a second phase, the stakeholders should be assigned to different areas of action and further project relevant areas. For that scope, we use the thematic modelling elaborated by Ager and Strang: it distinguishes among 10 different domains that are crucial for the integration of Third Country Nationals into hosting societies. To these 10 dimensions, we added “mobility” as we deem it as crucial in rural and mountain regions. The resulting scheme of the thematic areas is depicted in the image below that represents the topics/areas where stakeholders’ involvement is needed.

Figure 3: Mid-level theory by Ager and Strang (Source: Ager & Strang, 2008, p.170; adapted by Weidinger et al., 2017, p.50.

Finally, there is the need to organize the different phases of stakeholders involvement on a temporal line. To put the stakeholder involvement into a temporal context, the planned engagement of stakeholders is assigned to a timeline of work packages and tasks. Furthermore, the Stakeholder Schedule, part of the Stakeholder Involvement Plan, helps to indicate the planned stage of stakeholder participation.

Once the stakeholders are identified and the timing of their participation is detailed, how do you concretely ensure their involvement?

To involve experts and stakeholders after successfully identifying them, there are many different methods, the choice of which varies according to purpose and context. E.g. to simply inform stakeholders, fact sheets, newsletters, websites or information sessions could be the right tool. For open consultations, online surveys or interviews could be used and joint creation sessions could be organized as focus groups, co-creation workshops or open innovation sessions. 

Interested about how stakeholder involvement works? For more information have a look in the MATILDE Stakeholder Involvement Plan

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