Action research and evaluation on line

Session 4: Stakeholders and



This is Session 4 of areol, action research and evaluation on line, a 14-week public course offered as a public service by Southern Cross University and the Southern Cross Institute of Action Research (SCIAR). which I address questions about who to involve in action research programs, and how to involve them.  In particular, issues of level of involvement and direct and indirect participation are addressed


You walk into the meeting that you are to facilitate.  The hostility is tangible.  Obviously, they think you are here to do the bidding of the government and the Minister.  What on earth can you say and do to overcome the hostility?


In this session:


In the preceding session I talked about the importance of contracting with every client.  I assume that contracting and relationship-building isn't something done once.  It recurs every time a new stakeholder becomes involved.  It is renegotiated to some extent each time you meet with any stakeholder.

But which clients? Sometimes it isn't feasible to involve everyone, and choices have to be made.  There are those you can't ignore, because you need their support or the information they can provide.  There are those you don't wish to ignore, for whatever reason.  For may of you (as for me) no doubt there are issues of values or ethics to be considered.

If you decide that there isn't enough time or money to involve everyone, what do you do?   If these constraints require you to be selective, how will you choose?

And what will you involve them in?  As informants, probably.  Will they also interpret the information they provide?  Will they plan and implement the changes?  And how much involvement will they have in the process -- in designing and facilitating the action research?  In deciding what will be researched?  In deciding how much they will participate, and in what?

I'm not assuming that there is one right answer to these important questions.

In this session and the accompanying resources, I describe some ways of identifying and involving stakeholders.



I've tried to minimise jargon in this program.  For this session it's useful to introduce, again, a technical term used last session: "stakeholder".  For present purposes, a stakeholder is ...

someone who has a stake in a program or organisation or whatever

or, in other words, anyone affected by a change, or able to affect it.

That makes it sound as if someone either is a stakeholder, or isn't.  Like many concepts, this one can be ambiguous at the boundary.  It's often useful to define a number of varieties of stakeholder.  I'll come to that in a moment.

As well, there is the term "client".

Some people object to this on the grounds that it implies some sort of power relationship between client and researcher.  Perhaps it does.

I would have thought that often the client has some sources of power.  She pays the bills.  She determines the conditions under which the research is done.  The researcher has some power too.  She often has expert knowledge of research and evaluation processes which the client doesn't have.

I'll continue to use the term "client".  For me, it defines the person for whom you're doing the research.  For me, that usually means all of the stakeholders.  And for me that includes those who aren't much involved, for whatever reason.  (Not everyone sees it like that.  You're free to make up your own mind.)

Here are some varieties of client and stakeholder.  I think it's useful to distinguish...

The presenting client.  This is the person who approaches you, or (sometimes) whom you first approach.  The presenting client is your initial contact with the client group.

The principal client.  For some purposes and some researchers there is someone who is given primary allegiance.  This is usually the person who pays the bills, or has ultimate power of veto over the research.  In an organisational setting it may be the chief executive officer.

Direct stakeholders.  These are people who are directly affected by what is happening, or what is going to happen.  For example, suppose you are doing some community consultation for the purpose of traffic design.  Direct stakeholders include residents in the area where the roads and transport are to be changed.

Indirect stakeholders.  These are people who have a stake, too.  But it may not be as obvious.  They may be harder to identify.  In traffic design, indirect stakeholders include the motorists or others who travel through the area where consultation is to take place.  Less obviously, so are the residents of other suburbs who will experience increased or reduced traffic if there are changes in this suburb.  It is sometimes difficult to identify all of the indirect stakeholders.  (They may well identify themselves later, when they complain about the decisions made.)

As with most categorisations you can assume that reality is more complex than this.  I think, though, that it is a useful simplification.  It captures a useful distinction.  Often you will have to use different processes to involve direct and indirect stakeholders.

It's useful, too, to remember that you are pursuing both change and understanding.  There may be those you wish to involve because you need their support.  There may be those who have information which you need.  Sometimes you may decide that different forms of involvement are appropriate for each of these.

I'll add a caveat to the categorisation above.  It is most useful, I think, if you remember that ultimately stakeholders are people.

Which brings me to the next topic:  entry and contracting.  These early stages involve forming effective relationships.  In my experience the most effective relationships are usually those where people relate to each other as people.  Person-to-person, not formal-role-to-formal-role.



Nor is participation all-or-none.  There is a continuum which ranges from the barest contact to a situation where the clients do the research for themselves and without assistance.  It may be useful to identify some points on this continuum.  This will indicate the range of choices open to the action researcher.

(Some would say that without high levels of participation you don't have "action research".  Again, the differing opinions give you the freedom to make up your own mind.)

One way of describing the continuum is by distinguishing non-involvement, representation, and participation.

In non-involvement, the researcher does it all.

Representation uses a small group of people.  They speak on behalf of a larger number.

Participation implies that all stakeholders are involved, or at least are given a chance to be involved.

Clearly, though, there are many levels of involvement for those who are representatives or participants.  They may be involved only in some shallow information exchange.  At the other extreme they may do the research without outside help.

Here is another way of thinking about it...

  • One end of the continuum is defined by non-involvement.  The researcher, presumably acting for herself or on someone else's behalf, collects and interprets the information.
    As I've said, many would not call this action research.  However, it is not unusual for evaluators to conduct their research in this way.  Some teacher action research does little to involve the pupils.  Some "emancipatory" research ignores those who are powerful.
  • Then follows consultation.  Here I think it is worth distinguishing indirect consultation through representatives and direct consultation where everyone is consulted.
    (Consultation itself is an ambiguous term -- sometimes it is used to refer to the whole spectrum, as in the phrase "community consultation".  Sometimes it is intended to describe a situation where people are given information, or asked for opinions, but little more than that.)
    • Indirect consultation is a common form of involvement for indirect stakeholders.  In many change activities, for example, some form of representative group is set up.  They are then given information and perhaps asked to react to it.  Or perhaps they are asked only for the answers to some questions. 
      A "reference group", a group of people chosen to speak for some larger body or bodies of people, is an example of indirect consultation.  (Obviously, there are many choices about the level of involvement of reference groups.)
    • In direct consultation all stakeholders are offered the opportunity to give information, or get information, or both.  Sometimes they are able to act on that information too. 
      Research involving many stakeholders can complicate the issues.  In such instances, it is not uncommon for researchers to distinguish direct and indirect stakeholders.  They may then aim for a high level of participation of direct stakeholders, and representation for indirect stakeholders.
  • "Process consultation" is a label used in the change literature.  It describes an approach which offers greater involvement to participants.  The researcher or facilitator manages the process by which information is gained.  The participants do the rest.  They set the goals, identify and interpret the information, and then develop and implement the plans. 
    For small numbers of participants, process consultation can achieve very high involvement.  At the same time, it makes use of the researcher's expertise in designing and managing the process, or in helping to do so. 
  • Beyond this, clients may be co-researchers.  In this approach, both the content of the study and the processes used are chosen by participants and researcher acting together.  Except where clients have former experience of action research, it may be hard to achieve at first unless numbers are very small and researcher and client roles are carefully and sensitively negotiated. 
  • Finally, there may be little or no outside involvement.  The client group members may manage their own process and make all their own decisions.  In one form they may hire some process expertise from an outside researcher.  Or they may do it themselves, with no outside help. 
    This is common enough when professionals and practitioners use action research to improve their practice.  It isn't all that common in other settings, though its use seems to be growing.


So you may think of a continuum of involvement stretching from non-involvement to full client responsibility, with intermediate steps something like this:

  • non-involvement
  • indirect consultation through representatives
  • direct consultation
  • process consultation
  • co-research
  • full client responsibility

These are to some extent arbitrary: I could easily have subdivided the continuum into more or fewer steps.

Alternatively, I could have described it as a matrix in which there are columns for representation and participation, and rows which define varying levels of involvement.


Choosing levels of participation

Most writers on action research encourage high levels of participation.  In fact, many researchers use the term "participative action research" or PAR to describe their research paradigm.

A personal view: I value participation highly.  (I think my approach to "teaching" and consultancy illustrates this.)  I also think it can have high costs.  It seems to me that it is important to take both the costs and the benefits into account.  There is likely to be an amount of participation which reasonably balances costs and benefits.

(I also think it is entirely appropriate for an action researcher to decline a study on the grounds of her values.  For example, I usually decline assignments which don't involve people I think warrant involvement.  Researchers are allowed to have preferences, and take them into account.)

When I am asked to suggest a level of participation to presenting clients, I prefer instead to engage them in an analysis of the different choices.

In an organisational setting, for example, I may say to them:

"Clearly you have the authority to decide how participative to be.

"For reasons of urgency, for example, you may decide that high participation is not feasible.  If so, however, I don't believe you can later complain about the resistance you encounter.  That is inherent in your chosen approach.

"On the other hand, you may choose to use high levels of participation.  Don't then complain about the time it may take to reach a decision.  That is often inherent in participative approaches."

As a personal decision, I also decline research and consultancy unless I am allowed to take the interests of all stakeholders into account.


Archived resources

There are some relevant resources on the arlist archive.  You can access them by anonymous ftp:

If the web versions are available you will find them at URL:

(You will of course substitute the relevant file name for "file name".)

The relevant files can be described as follows.

This gives a description of a process for stakeholder analysis.  It helps you to decide when you need more information about a stakeholder, and which stakeholders it is most important to involve.
In this file I identify seven different functions in which participants might become involved.  I suggest that, for each function, a different decision about who to involve may be made.

Two files discuss participation in different settings:

This file, in the form of a checklist, guides the reader through the design of a process for community consultation.
This file outlines some of the issues in creating involvement in an organisational setting.

In addition, Vikki Uhlmann has written a brief and persuasive account of reasons for favouring high participation in action research projects:

A brief listing of the main advantages of participation.


Other reading

The literature on participation is scattered.  There are mentions in a variety of other literatures.  The "grey" literature -- monographs and papers put out by a variety of small organisations -- is extensive.

Ask around.  You'll find a local equivalent for valuable works such as the following.  (I recommend all three, by the way.  They are all worth chasing.)

Carman, Kathy, and Keith, Ken (1994) Community consultation techniques: purposes, processes and pitfalls: a guide for planners and facilitators.  Brisbane: Department of Primary Industries.

Emery, Merrilyn, ed.  (1989) Participative design for participative democracy.  Canberra: Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University.

Sarkissian, W.  and Perlgut, D., eds.  (1994) The community participation handbook: resources for public involvement in the planning process, second edition.  Murdoch: Institute for Science and Technology Policy, Murdoch University.

There are a number of fields which deal well with participation: quality management, landcare, community risk management, and lots more.  A small sample:

Chamala, S., and Mortiss, P.D.  (1990) Working together for landcare: group management skills and strategies.  Brisbane: Australian Academic Press.

Hance, B.J., Chess, Caron, and Sandman, Peter M.  (1990) Industry risk communications manual: improving dialogue with communities.  Florida: Lewis Publishers.  (This is a fine little book, with practical checklists.)

Ilsley, Paul J.  (1990) Enhancing the volunteer experience: new insights on strengthening volunteer participation, learning, and commitment.  San Francisco, Ca.: Jossey-Bass.

The field of social marketing is relevant:

Kotler, Philip, and Roberto, Eduardo L.  (1989) Social marketing: strategies for changing public behaviour.  New York: Free Press.

So is community organising:

Twelvetrees, Alan (1991) Community work, second edition.  Basingstoke, Hamps.: Macmillan.

And of course there is work that looks specifically at participative research.  Some are mentioned in other sessions.  Another good example is:

Park, P., Brydon-Miller, M., Hall, B., and Jackson, T., eds.  (1993) Voices of change: participatory research in the United States and Canada.  Westport: Bergin & Harvey.

Most of the recent work on action research is strongly participative in flavour.  You will find a bibliography of action research books in the archive:

A bibliography of action research books published in 1994 or later. (If you know of any important omissions please send me details.)



A thought experiment

You have just heard that "X", a consultant, has been employed by the chief executive officer / the local government council / the program director to survey the views of the people in your organisation / community / program.

What thoughts go through your mind?  What suspicions do you harbour in your more sceptical moments?  What would "X" have to do and say to overcome your scepticism?


An individual activity

Talk to your colleagues and neighbours about some issue which affects everyone.  (Be honest: say you are doing it for an assignment.)  Example of issues you can use are taxes, the environment, transport, and so on.

When they offer an opinion, ask them sensitively what information they have on that topic.

What have you learned about the opinions people hold?  What are the implications for action research which seeks effective change based on good understanding?


For your learning group

Help each other do a stakeholder analysis for your projects.  (See the relevant paper in the archive.)  Then decide who you would have to approach, and how, for effective participation.

(Assume that you have dual goals of action and research.)




In summary, we've examined a range of stakeholder categories, and a variety of levels of participation.  My approach has been to view level of participation as a choice, perhaps different for different stakeholders.

Much of this has all been rather conceptual.  The next session turns again to the practical.  It examines actual ways of achieving participation.  See you then.  -- Bob


Let's practice action research on areol.  What ideas do you have for improving this session? What didn't you understand? What examples and resources can you provide from your own experience? What else? If you are subscribed to the email version, send your comments to the discussion list. Otherwise, send them to Bob Dick


Copyright (c) Bob Dick 2002.  May be copied provided it is not included in material sold at a profit, and this and the following notice are shown.

This document may be cited as follows:

Dick, B.  (2002) Stakeholders and participation.  Session 4 of Areol - action research and evaluation on line.





Maintained by Bob Dick; this version 11.03w; last revised 20020712

A text version of this file is available at