Vox populi, or: democracy requires listening
Conceptually, stakeholder participation in sustainability research and governance is necessary for several reasons, including higher legitimacy and easier implementation of plans and projects. Meaningful stakeholder involvement requires taking their points of view, their values and preferences serious, and integrate them into the resulting horizontal Multicriteria Analysis MCA (a vertical MCA would use the issues and concerns suggested by stakeholders, but would weigh them top-down with the weights attributed by the decision maker). In particular the failure of monetary valuation to provide meaningful valuation instruments requires participation of a representative diversity of stakeholders in ESS research and governance to answer the question what people value, and how.
The first step of stakeholder activation is the analysis, conducted ex-ante and updated, complemented and refined perpetually on an ad-hoc basis (ad hoc analysis is also used when there was no chance for ex-ante investigation). In a first rather simplistic classification, stakeholders can be categorised as being more or less interested in the issue concerned on the one hand, and more or less influential on the other. This is the basis for developing communication and involvement strategies: Low interest stakeholders with limited influence are informed, but if their influence is high they need to be involved if anyhow possible. Interested stakeholders should be consulted even if weak, and be turned into collaborators if
No major public project is implemented without ex-ante valuating different planning options, most often in terms of cost-benefit analyses. These, however, fail to take the pros and cons of different options on an equal footing: financial values tend to dominate; other values are not part of the balance sheet. To be taken into account, they would have to be monetised, and thus lose their character as non-utilitarian, non-instrumental values, as future or public values, etc. The failure of internalisation requires other value attributing mechanism, and participation of a representative diversity of stakeholders is the best option a democracy has to offer.
Although conceptually seemingly easy, reaching the desired level of engagement for the desired time span can be a wicked problem – successful participation depends on the specific socio-cultural context and requires different means and modes of participation during different project phases.
A minimum condition is to understand the reasons for engagement (or its absence), and the potential benefits the stakeholders expect (or miss). This usually requires not only benefitting from the results of a project they had no influence on, but rather the need to take their demands into account, specifying, modifying and changing the project. For research projects, that is the core of transdisciplinarity, and for other projects like infrastructure development, it should be considered as self-explaining in a democratic society.
Specific contribution by SERI
SERI and its staff members have been involved in transdisciplinary research including the active involvement of stakeholders for more than 20 years now. In several major projects SERI coordinated and organised, or contributed to the stakeholder participation processes, organised stakeholder fora and consultative groups. We do so based on the experience not only from the project organisers’ side, but also based on our experience in working with environmental and sustainable consumption NGOs, religious groups, trade unions, etc.: knowing both sides we weigh their concerns equally, and communicate concerns and hopes between the parties involved.