In a wise democracy, who are “stakeholders” and what is their role?

Stakeholders are citizens involved with a specific issue or domain, whose activities actually constitute that issue or domain. Thus the stakeholders of a domain collectively have the potential – IF they collaborate – to make whatever difference is most important to be made in the domain they have hitherto been fighting over. Full-spectrum stakeholder collaborations thus offer a powerful complement to citizen engagement on the road to an effective wise democracy.

Many people think of “stakeholders” as powerful people with vested interests in an issue or situation, and that their “stake” usually involves money.

I am among a growing group within the fields of deliberative democracy and public engagement who look at “stakeholders” as any and all people involved with an issue, situation or domain – or those who could and should be involved in order for that issue, situation or domain to be addressed well.

Of course this includes, most importantly, the people who make decisions in that realm and those who are effected by whatever decisions are made. But there are others involved, as well, like opinion leaders, funders, nonprofits, media owners, experts, allies of the various players, observers and others who could influence the outcome.

In our political culture many of these players speak for themselves. Others speak through allied organizations, activists, or officials. They are usually members of networks engaged around their shared area of concern – food, poverty, peace, health care, education, freedom, the environment, economic growth, security, and so on.

Traditional democratic narratives tell us that people should have a “voice” in the decisions that effect their lives and what they care about. Stakeholders organize in order for their voices to be heard in the political dialogue and to impact official decision-makers.

Now here we encounter an odd tension between “stakeholders” and “citizens”. Although most stakeholders are citizens of some jurisdiction (or place), their primary role – and often their main activity as citizens – is to promote the interests of certain parties involved with particular issues. The more competitive the overarching political environment is, the more adversarial their stakeholder battles become. And for the sake of democracy, these battles – or at least the stakeholders we’re opposing – must be constrained in the public interest.

This is where the wise democracy perspective branches off from the traditional democratic narrative.

From a wise democracy perspective, stakeholders are most usefully viewed as the players who shape what happens with their issue or domain. Their seemingly separate and often adversarial activities – based on the diverse needs, values and beliefs they hold dear – are primarily significant because of the diverse roles these stakeholders play in the interdependent ecosystem of activities that ARE that issue or domain. There is little going on in an issue or domain that isn’t the work of those stakeholders.

Usually such diverse stakeholder activities are more conflicted, manipulative or mutually oblivious than they are collaborative and wise. HOWEVER, to the extent a full spectrum of those players could become more collaborative and wise, their issue or domain would naturally be handled far better than it is now. They ARE, after all, the people who shape whatever happens there. It isn’t so much a matter of “who is in charge” or of importing some other people or information into the dynamic system. What I’m highlighting here is the fact that these folks, collectively, ARE the system we are talking about. And inside, among and around these players, various interactive and whole-system conditions, dynamics and narratives are busy shaping how they actually think and behave. Our challenge is to transform those conditions, dynamics and narratives so we can tap the whole-system potential of the entire spectrum of players.

I’m pointing to the juicy presence of wise democracy leverage in this opportunity space. To the extent a full spectrum of these players can be brought together into generative conversation and collaborative action, THEY can provide the diverse insights, energy and resources needed to address the on-the-ground complexity of the realm in which they are all involved. THEY can make decisions based on an unprecedented understanding of that complexity – and THEY can act with more effectiveness at every point in the system because THEY collectively ARE the system they are tackling.

And that’s why this is such a critical aspect of wise democracy. The article I posted last week argues that the diverse perspectives in a community can make that community wiser collectively than any of its individual members are. Likewise, we can see that the diverse perspectives – and gifts – available from the full range of stakeholders in an issue or domain CAN (under the right conditions!) generate more wisely coherent accomplishments regarding that issue or domain than any of the players could separately, no matter how powerful they were.

So there’s a potential democratic synergy here: On the one hand we find the gifts of community-based citizen democracy grounded in shared community values and familiarity with the needs and experiences of the everyday people who live in that particular place. On the other hand, we find the democratic gifts of COLLABORATIVE stakeholder engagements[1] providing deep clarity about the full dimensions of a given issue or domain and how to address it, engaging the energies and presence of diverse players everywhere within it to actually do the work – especially if they are present as networks.

Integrating the gifts of both these manifestations of democracy[2] would result in a far more enlightened and effective version of the deep democracy vision I described in my previous post. New approaches are emerging that make that vision more possible than ever. I’ll discuss some of them shortly.

[1] In an earlier post I explored the governance implications of collaborating multi-sector, multi-stakeholder, multi-scale (MS3) networks. Although I find the MS3 distinctions useful, the fact is that multi-sector and multi-scale are subsets of multi-stakeholder, since those involved in diverse sectors and at various scales qualify as stakeholders in whatever domain we are addressing.

[2] I’ve long seen the value of stakeholder involvement in citizen deliberations and citizen involvement in stakeholder deliberations – what I called Citizen/Stakeholder Balance But in the two years since the MS3 realizations referenced in footnote[1], my sense of the potential synergies between the two democratic modes has expanded and complexified significantly. Thus my new series of posts….

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