What is a Stakeholder Representative?

A stakeholder is any person who will be directly affected by the outcome of a decision-making process. It is a term that is commonly used when talking about public policy decision-making or dispute resolution, processes in which representation of all affected groups is desired.[1] For example, the citizens of a neighborhood in which the construction of a factory is proposed all have an interest or "stake" in the outcome of the decision on whether or not to build the factory. The citizens may perceive new job opportunities, or they may perceive impending degradation of their quiet neighborhood. No matter what their interests are or how they may actually be affected by the decision, they are all stakeholders. Collectively, they would form one or more stakeholder groups. One pro-factory group might be called Citizens for Jobs; while an anti-factory group might be Citizens for the Preservation of Riverton.

Though the term "stakeholder" normally pertains to public policy issues within a community or even a nation, it can also be used to refer to people affected by the outcome of international agreements as well. For example, the outcome of a peace agreement ending a military conflict will certainly affect the citizens of the involved nations. Because any of these types of conflict involve hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people, all of the interested individuals cannot possibly participate in negotiating solutions to the problem at hand.

In complex disputes involving hundreds of stakeholders (or more), it is virtually impossible to create a seat at the [negotiating] table for everyone. Some attention must be given to the size and manageability of the group at the table. Administratively, it is often impossible to have every stakeholder participating. Hence, issues of representation must be considered.[2]

Stakeholder representatives, then, are individuals who are selected to speak on behalf of a larger group in a negotiation process. Representative participation is essential for formal negotiation, as it takes far too long to get a large number of people to agree on a final solution.[3] Limiting the number of people actually involved in working out the details of an agreement is more efficient and effective.

Choosing Stakeholder Representatives

There are a variety of ways in which stakeholder representatives may be chosen. The choice will most likely depend on what type of conflict or dispute is being settled. Sometimes the best representative is immediately clear; other times the choice can be more difficult. There are a virtually unlimited number of possible scenarios. The most basic division of these scenarios is large scale and small scale.

Large-Scale

Large-scale conflict resolution processes affect thousands or even millions of people and lend themselves to more clear-cut ways of identifying stakeholder representatives. For example, in an international negotiation, a democratic nation like the United States has officials or diplomats from the State Department that represent the interests of the American people. These representatives are at least somewhat predetermined within the democratic structure of the government. (Although the State Department can make a choice of a number of individuals to do it's negotiating.) It is important to also keep in mind that any agreement reached at the international level must be ratified by an official decision-making body, such as the U.S. Congress. Other governments will also have designated officials to represent them in major negotiations.

Sometimes representation at the international level is highly contentious, however, as is evidenced by the situation in the Israeli-Palestine conflict. For a long time Israel refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of Yassir Arafat and the PLO, and would negotiate with neither, even though the Palestinians wanted Arafat to be their representative. Even now, after Israel did negotiate with Arafat to develop the Oslo Accords, they are again trying to work around him and with other people, as Arafat is seen by many to be an obstacle to peace.

Another large-scale example may be a negotiation over a major, national-level environmental issue such as the Endangered Species Act. In such a case, various stakeholder groups will have to choose representatives. For example, a whole coalition of interested environmental groups will most likely have to choose just one or two representatives to sit at a negotiation or consensus building table.  There are no standard procedures for choosing such a representative, but most likely that would involve a process of consensus building among the stakeholder groups themselves. Regardless of who is chosen, the legitimacy of the selected representatives may be questioned because that person has affiliations to his organization as well as the larger coalition. It may also be difficult for that person to maintain legitimacy because of the large size of his constituency. If there are significant differences in interests or needs between factions, it will be hard to satisfy all groups at once.

Smaller Scale

Smaller scale, ad hoc processes require stakeholder representatives as well. As noted above, much of the literature on stakeholder representation comes out of discussion of public policy decision-making. Consensus building has become a popular process in this arena and puts a certain set of demands on interest groups and their representatives. The basic idea of consensus building is that all interested parties be included in deciding on a solution to the problem. As with much larger processes, consensus building normally requires groups to choose a representative to sit at the negotiating table.

Productive negotiations cannot begin until two problems are solved: figuring out which groups should be represented, and choosing representatives empowered to speak for the groups they claim to represent.[4]

This task can be a serious challenge for some interest groups if they are not officially organized or have a major diversity of viewpoints within the group. A group of concerned citizens is a perfect example of this type of diffuse group.

There are a variety of ways legitimate representatives can be chosen for an interest group or constituency. Any stakeholder representative must be in a good position to "shuttle back and forth between the negotiating group and the people they represent. Their task is not to speak for their constituents, but to speak with them."[5] The representative should be knowledgeable about the issue on the table and able to get along with others.[6] The representative must command the trust and respect of his or her constituents, so that the group will be able to work effectively and send their representative to the negotiating table well prepared. The intermediary character of the representative's role is what makes the selection process so important.

In some cases, an interest group will include a person who stands out as the natural leader and that person will be quickly identified as the group's representative. In other cases, choosing a representative can present a problem. In such cases, it may be helpful if the person organizing the negotiation (a mediator or third party) meets with the constituency group and helps them organize and identify an acceptable representative.[7] This process can be difficult with groups that have internal divisions. For a representative to possess legitimacy in the eyes of his constituency, disagreements within the group need to be resolved. If they are not, then whatever the representative achieves in negotiation is in great jeopardy of being undermined in the future.[8] "Early controversies over representation, in short, should not be papered over or brushed aside, no matter how frustrating they may be."[9]

A mediator can help an unorganized or disputing group to clarify their interests and goals, and help resolve disputes within the group.[10] One effective way to identify an acceptable representative is for the mediator to interview members of the constituency group. Various members will often repeatedly mention one individual's name. If this happens, it will be clear to the third party who commands the respect of the group.[11] If not, the mediator will have to keep working at it. Another strategy is to suggest several names for the position to members of the group, ask each person for their preference, and make the decision based on that information.[12]

Demands of Stakeholder Representation

The process of going back and forth between the negotiating table and their constituents can be extremely demanding on stakeholder representatives. Their constituents are likely to want to stick to a fixed position on an issue. For example, a neighborhood group may simply want to block the construction of the factory nearby and will not be entirely happy with any other outcome. However, the representative must also respect and adhere to the demands put on him or her at the negotiating table. For example, in a consensus building process, there will be ground rules that demand a fair and balanced process in which all participants' views are listened to and respected. The integrative nature of consensus building requires the representative to focus on interests and not just on his constituents' position. Often as a representative learns more about others' perspectives on the issue at hand, his own view of it will change. The tension between the two groups a representative must deal with (his/her constituency and the people at the table) makes it difficult for him or her to maintain trust and respect at both ends.

During the consensus building or negotiating process, representatives must be flexible and continually re-evaluate where they stand on the issue as they learn more about it. However, their constituents are removed from the negotiation context. Therefore it is important that stakeholder representatives remember that they have to justify their "reassessments" to their constituents. This argues for frequent communication with those constituents -- reporting back about what happened in the negotiations, and reporting the interests and concerns of the constituents back to the negotiators at the table. Ultimately, whether a representative can maintain legitimacy in the eyes of his constituents depends heavily on how well he can translate what happens at the negotiating table back to his group.[13]

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ENDNOTES

[1] Definition of stakeholder drawn from: Douglas H. Yarn, The Dictionary of Conflict Resolution (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999), 401.

[2] Barbara Gray, Collaborating: Finding Common Ground for Multiparty Problems (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1989), 68.

[3] Lawrence Susskind and Jeffrey Cruikshank, Breaking the Impasse: Consensual Approaches to Resolving Public Disputes (New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1987), 103.

[4] Ibid, 101.

[5] Ibid, 105.

[6] Susan Carpenter and W.J.D. Kennedy, Managing Public Disputes (San Francisco : Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2001), 105.

[7] Gray, 68.

[8] Ibid, 70.

[9] Susskind, 106.

[10] Gray, 70.

[11] Carpenter, 104-105.

[12] Ibid, 105.

[13] Ibid, 253.

Brad Spangler is an Associate at Resolve in Washington, D.C. His primary area of interest is public policy dispute resolution. Brad Spangler is a contributor to Beyond Intractability which is an online “encyclopedia” compiling easy-to-understand essays on almost 400 topics which explain the dynamics of conflict along with available options for promoting more constructive approaches.