A Practical Approach to Measuring Stakeholder Engagement -
Why our book chapter is relevant to the need for and possibility of an evolving evaluation design (and metrics) at the intersection of systems thinking and evaluation.
Thu Hoang and William Pate
We recently had the opportunity to write a book chapter on measuring stakeholder engagement. We were asked by F3E (https://f3e.asso.fr/) to write it for a practitioner audience rather than an academic one. Here, we describe the rationale for our contribution, the need that it attempts to fill, highlights from the material, background, and where it can be accessed.
Rationale for the book chapter
As evaluators, we appreciate evidence for decision-making and program improvements. But what exactly is good evidence? In evaluation, obtaining some levels of validity is both a practical and an important aim.
In reflecting and discussing our evaluation experiences working in different sectors and continents, we observed that the past and current evaluation practices/norms have excluded direct key stakeholders’ perspectives as well as their inputs. If we want to use evaluation to create sustainable positive changes in the lives of communities then it makes sense to include their engagement in the project design process; ideally, evaluation and project design occur simultaneously. Stakeholder engagement is different from participation; including beneficiaries as evaluation participants in a focus group discussion is not stakeholder engagement.
The gap address by our book chapter
If we agree that meaningful engagement of non-traditional stakeholders is essential for quality project/evaluation design, implementation, and results, then we would want to measure the quality and instances of these interactions or engagements. Our book chapter provides a practical, though not necessarily easy, approach to deliberately engage all stakeholders. The foundational concepts of our approach can be found in systems thinking. Systems thinking gets us away from a strictly linear process suggested by traditional logic models; namely, where stakeholder engagement is represented as an input that occurs only at the very beginning of the process (if at all). This static view is limiting in that most activities are almost never this simple or linear; monitoring and evaluation activities, community interventions, patient-centered research, and product marketing efforts often include iterative and sometimes competing processes (Senge, 2006).
Book chapter highlights
Because our suggestions for deliberative stakeholder engagement (DSE) is a practical approach; it is not grass-roots or top-down but rather an inclusive approach of their contribution(s) at any point in the program cycle. We propose measuring stakeholder engagement along two dimensions: principles and phases. Our hope is that funders/donors weave the seven principles into future Request For Proposals (RFPs) to facilitate DSE.
We recognize that deliberate stakeholder engagement implementation may not be possible equally for all programs/projects. However, we also know that it is easier to not change the ways things are done; in other words, do what we always do because program evaluations almost always tell us that there are positive results. Many of us also know that more can be accomplished with DSE in some form or shape.
There are many ways to measure stakeholder engagement. We proposed a basic method that is useful to practitioners. This was not an attempt to develop a lab-tested instrument with a scientifically acceptable reliability index. Rather, this chapter was meant to be a starting point in considering the various and wide-ranging dimensions of stakeholder engagement that are possible so that the practitioner can consider their application to the project at hand. Ideally, these considerations are made well before the initiation of the project or program. But, experienced practitioners recognize this is not the usual case. Even if the project is well underway and many options are beyond change, there is still hope for strategically targeted adjustments. At each phase of the program cycle are occasions where stakeholder engagements can occur.
How to find it
Thanks to the generous support of F3E, our book chapter and the entire book are available at no cost. There are two ways to access these resources:
How our book chapter fits into the universe of systems thinking
Our book chapter reexamines stakeholder engagement from a systems perspective. That is, taking a more holistic, and qualitatively different, view on an aspect of traditional program evaluation. This is different from evaluating systems change (e.g., Gates and Fils-Aime, 2021; Kania, Kramer, and Senge, 2018) where instead of examining the effects of a specific program in isolation, the goal is assessing the cumulative impact of a set of programs working in concert, to effect change at a systems level.
How did we get into writing this chapter?
Sometime before the COVID-19 pandemic, Thu and I began having regular coffee meetings to discuss our respective lines of work - my quantitative-focused program evaluation projects and her Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) work. Evaluation, writ large, was our common denominator. In thinking about how our different areas were similar, we began taking an expansive view of our fields. At the same time, Thu started reading The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge (2006), a book about applying a systems perspective to problems.
A systems perspective opened up an entirely new way for us to think about Theory of Change in general and stakeholder engagement in particular. As we began hashing out the particulars of this idea, Thu noticed and forwarded F3E’s call for contributions to an upcoming book that was posted on the Peregrine listserv in October 2020. The timing of the announcement was perfect for us – forcing us to put down on paper our recent thinking about just one intersection of systems thinking and evaluation work.