How to engage stakeholders in research: Design principles to support improvement

Boaz, A., Hanney, S., Borst, R., O’Shea, A., & Kok, M. (2018). How to engage stakeholders in research: Design principles to support improvement. Health Research Policy and Systems, 16(1), 60.


Background: Closing the gap between research production and research use is a key challenge for the health research system. Stakeholder engagement is being increasingly promoted across the board by health research funding organisations, and indeed by many researchers themselves, as an important pathway to achieving impact. This opinion piece draws on a study of stakeholder engagement in research and a systematic literature search conducted as part of the study.

Main body: This paper provides a short conceptualisation of stakeholder engagement, followed by ‘design principles’ that we put forward based on a combination of existing literature and new empirical insights from our recently completed longitudinal study of stakeholder engagement. The design principles for stakeholder engagement are organised into three groups, namely organisational, values and practices. The organisational principles are to clarify the objectives of stakeholder engagement; embed stakeholder engagement in a framework or model of research use; identify the necessary resources for stakeholder engagement; put in place plans for organisational learning and rewarding of effective stakeholder engagement; and to recognise that some stakeholders have the potential to play a key role. The principles relating to values are to foster shared commitment to the values and objectives of stakeholder engagement in the project team; share understanding that stakeholder engagement is often about more than individuals; encourage individual stakeholders and their organisations to value engagement; recognise potential tension between productivity and inclusion; and to generate a shared commitment to sustained and continuous stakeholder engagement. Finally, in terms of practices, the principles suggest that it is important to plan stakeholder engagement activity as part of the research programme of work; build flexibility within the research process to accommodate engagement and the outcomes of engagement; consider how input from stakeholders can be gathered systematically to meet objectives; consider how input from stakeholders can be collated, analysed and used; and to recognise that identification and involvement of stakeholders is an iterative and ongoing process.

Conclusion: It is anticipated that the principles will be useful in planning stakeholder engagement activity within research programmes and in monitoring and evaluating stakeholder engagement. A next step will be to address the remaining gap in the stakeholder engagement literature concerned with how we assess the impact of stakeholder engagement on research use.

From the pen of Annette Boaz and colleagues, a group that is well positioned to speak with authority on all aspects of research impact including – now – stakeholder engagement. See an earlier journal club post that effectively makes the case for stakeholder engagement in research – basically you can transfer the heck out of your knowledge but if it isn’t answering a well documented need then no one will take up your research evidence and implement it in their policies, practices and services. Stakeholder engagement is also a key component of the co-produced pathway to impact. But as the authors point our there isn’t much literature on stakeholder engagement. Quoting one article, “the lack of reliable evidence compels implementers to rely largely on trial and error, risking variable success.”

They link patient/public involvement (PPI, a subset of stakeholder engagement), integrated KT and collaboration with stakeholder engagement basically because you can’t collaborate with anyone unless you engage with them. Then they proceed to outline design principles for stakeholder engagement arranged into three groups: organizational, values and practices and point out that there are some inevitable overlaps among these three groups.

The three groups are summarized in the abstract above and detailed in the article, so I won’t repeat them here. But some things to think about:

  • Organizational and Practices are both “things we do” while the values are “things we are”. I find the “inevitable overlaps” to be primarily between organizational and practices.
  • Under organizational, one of the design elements is recognise that some stakeholders have the potential to play a key role. I think there is a lot to unpack in “recognise”. I am going to assume the advice here is to academic researchers who need to put aside their comfortable persona as the expert and recognize (ie value) the expertise of lived experience, of policy, of industry etc. There is a brief mention about power differentials something that this “recognising” can help to balance.
  • This is related to one design element under values: encourage individual stakeholders and their organisations to value engagement. Don’t forget that researchers are also stakeholders and while I think this element is targeted to non-academic stakeholders it must also be taken up by researchers and academic research institutions to drive the aforementioned “recognising”.

In the conclusion: There is also a developing literature mapping out who potential stakeholders might be (the ‘who’), considering approaches to stakeholder engagement (the ‘how’) and identifying rationales for stakeholder engagement (the ‘why’). Applying the design elements in this article will help you determine who are the stakeholders to be engaged, how they should be engaged and why. Key things to figure out before putting stakeholder engagement in place.

And finally, if you’re interested in implementing stakeholder engagement (and based on this you should be), check out an annotated bibliography and a tool (in the Appendices) we developed to help organize the who, how and why of stakeholder engagement. It will help you organize some of the information you gather to plan your stakeholder engagement.

Questions for brokers

  1. Why do we need organization and practices design elements? Could these be combined in a single category of “things we do”?
  2. Stakeholder engagement, iKT, PPI, collaboration: how are they the same and different?
  3. How do you balance the power differentials between academic researchers and non-academic stakeholders?

Research Impact Canada is producing this journal club series to make evidence on KMb more accessible to knowledge brokers and to create online discussion about research on knowledge mobilization. It is designed for knowledge brokers and other knowledge mobilization stakeholders. Read this open access article (when it is available). Then come back to this post and join the journal club by posting your comments.