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9. Designing a Multi-stakeholder Process: Issues & Questions to be Addressed


In this chapter, we discuss a number of questions, issues and challenges which need to be addressed when designing and evaluating a multi-stakeholder process. These emerge from the discussion of values and ideology (Chapter 6), from relevant scientific research (Chapter 7), and from practical experiences (Chapter 8). We hope the considerations help clarify a variety of options and point to the crucial aspects which can make an MSP work or fail.[1]

The chapter is organised according to the proposed phases of MSPs, aiming to point out which decisions need to be made and which options there are. A number of issues to be addressed throughout the processes are considered in 9.6.

It is very worthwhile investing time and resources in carefully designing MSPs in order to avoid failure. Failure of MSPs can take the form of stakeholders walking away from dialogue, the inability of a group to make decisions, the lack of implementation of decisions reached. After a failed attempt to carry out an MSP, the situation might be worse than before – entering the process raises stakeholders expectations. Failure might increase conflict and distrust, confirm stereotypical views and diminish the ability and readiness to listen or collaborate – thus decreasing the likelihood of sustainable development goals to be put into practice.

Due to the different types of MSPs, some of the points and suggestions below don't apply to all MSPs. For example, consensus-building is usually not an issue in pure dialogue processes, and procedures of decision-making do not need to be considered.



9.1 Context


Process Design

There are many forms that an MSP can take. Each situation, issue or problem prompts the need for participants to design a process specifically suited to their abilities, circumstances, and needs. Participants must be able not only to put forth their individual goals and expectations but also to establish a common agenda that addresses a mutually agreed problem.

A process will be more difficult the greater the differences between participants' agendas, and if the issue to be addressed lies in an area of existing or likely conflict. Finding mechanisms to help overcome confrontational relationships and distrust will therefore need to be in the centre of designing the process, particularly its initial phases. In cases where conflict is apparent, MSPs need move from dialogue procedures to conflict resolution, including options such as bargaining, third-party mediation or dispute resolution techniques.

The most important mechanism to start building necessary trust from the outset is to design the process in a collaborative effort. This does not mean that there aren't going to be conflicts on the issues but helps to avoid confusions on process which tend to increase distrust. Agreeing on an MSP design on the basis of a collaborative effort helps to focus the process on the issues at hand.[2]

MSPs can be used in a variety of situations as the various examples and types of MSPs demonstrate. They can be appropriate to address a contentious issue where there is a need for dialogue and/or consensus-building to enable those who can make decisions to make those which will be supported by a majority of stakeholders and therefore be implemented without causing conflict but allow movement forward.[3]  The MSP employed to prepare for the decommissioning on Shell's Oil platform Brent Spar following protests by Greenpeace and others about its proposed disposal at sea in 1995 seems a suitable example. The issue was highly contentious (in this case, receiving a lot of media attention, being one indicator) and Shell conceded that they had to find a solution which would satisfy stakeholders (see Annex I). However, the process was not designed to arrive at a decision on decommissioning but developed a set of criteria that stakeholders agreed should be adhered to by Shell when making the decision about decommissioning the Brent Spar.

MSPs can also be employed in situations where new developments are being proposed by a stakeholder group and others need to become part of the process. An example might be tourism resort development being proposed by a foreign direct investor where local communities and other stakeholders need to be involved in the planning and decision-making process.[4]

Allowing sufficient time for preparations and the process itself is another important general component of designing MSPs. Many of the examples have been conducted within a short time period which has in some cases created all sorts of problems – it can hinder groups to participate in the preparations or altogether or to check back with their constituencies. Negative effects on the quality of the outcomes and the likelihood of agreement and implementation are easy to imagine. However, MSPs should have a time frame to keep participants focused and to avoid large ongoing costs. Designing the MSP is about striking a balance: between having enough time to learn, consult and develop as well as having sufficient pressure to deliver. Caution should be exercised to ensure that MSPs are not be used  by some participants as a tactical device to delay or block decision-finding.

Procedures need to be agreed by participants – procedures of preparation, communication ground rules for the meeting, issues around confidentiality, decision-making (if applicable), rapporteuring, documentation, relating to the outside, and fund raising. All these procedures need to be part of considerations, ideally multilateral ones, in the designing phase of an MSP. As a rule, any changes in procedure throughout the process also need to be agreed – they should be suggested to the whole group and dealt with by the whole group, including opportunities to check back with constituencies if participants choose to do so.

In order to ensure transparency about the design process, MSPs should not only publish their discussions and outcomes but also keep records of their design[5]. Information should be made available on who initiated the process, who was involved when and on which issues and questions, which mechanisms were employed to identify stakeholders, issues, goals, rules and procedures, and so on.

Finally, the MSP group can consider preparing and signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) or Terms of Reference that serves as the basis for cooperative work. The MOU can include the following components:

Specific activities that are to be jointly undertaken;

Respective roles and responsibilities of MSP group members;

Responsibilities of facilitators and other positions within the MSP group; 

Types of information to be shared and standards for sharing of information in the process, including agreements on confidentiality; 

Timeframe for completing each phase of the work; 

Methods for group decision-making and conflict resolution;

How outcomes of the MSP will be integrated into official decision-making processes; and, 

Resources to be provided by each member of the MSP group.


Linkage into official decision-making

A clear distinction needs to be made between a forum of stakeholder dialogue and collaboration and the deliberations of a democratically elected body or governing council that takes the responsibility for decisions.[6] However, if the MSP is designed around an (inter)governmental process, it is crucial that the linkages between the MSP and that process need to be clarified from the outset. It needs to be clear how the outcomes of an MSP (exchange of views or agreements) will be considered and utilized by decision-makers. A Memorandum of Understanding or Terms of Reference (see above) could cover these issues.

Different types of MSPs provide different kinds of linkages into official decision-making bodies, particularly governmental or intergovernmental ones. Many of the dialogue-focused examples studied (informing processes) have their weak point when it comes to identifying their linkage into the decision-making process. There is a need for transparency, ensuring that stakeholders are very clear about what they are engaging in. There is also a need for equity, which is difficult to ensure: Once there is a summary or report being put into an official decision-making process, stakeholders will of course (continue to) lobby decision-makers on the points most important to them. Their ability to do so will depend on the resources at their disposal – clearly an issue of inequity.

A chair's summary or another form of MSP outcome document can be produced and put into the decision-making process. The production and the status of such a document needs to be agreed within the decision-making body beforehand.


Issue Identification

MSPs need a clear agenda and precise definitions of what issue or set of issues they are going to address. A crucial question is: Who can and who should identify an issue or problem area which needs to be addressed with an MSP? And how should that happen? Ideally, anyone who is a stakeholder should be able to suggest an MSP. This should take the form of suggestions to all stakeholders who need to be involved, followed by developing a common understanding, in a democratic manner, of which aspects and questions are the ones which most need a multi-stakeholder approach.

However, many stakeholder groups are not in the position to make such suggestions effectively, either because they lack information or resources or power to make themselves heard, or gain access to the ones which could start a process - or all of these. In many cases, issues to be addressed in a MSP are decided by the body which facilitates it and/or which has a vital / vested interest in an MSP happening.

Conducted in such a fashion, identifying the issues an MSP is going to address, will result in a unilateral decision, with stakeholder groups being invited to participate in a process which has a set agenda. This poses a dilemma for the invitees, since taking part in the MSP could mean agreeing to an agenda they might not approve of, whereas refusing to take part might lead to the MSP being conducted without them and their views not being included.

For the sake of ensuring the potential success of a process, appropriate measures need to be taken to avoid unilateral, non-transparent, and inequitable identifying of issues. These include:

carefully scoping the area of an issue of interest: those who consider initiating an MSP should aim to get a clear picture of the discussions in/around the area of interest before identifying a particular issue/question as the one to be addressed (see Eden & Ackermann 1998);

involving stakeholders in discussions about potential issues and communicate to all stakeholders that that is being done;

based on initial consultations, setting a time-table for such identifying discussions and communicate it clearly;

supporting stakeholders to identify issues of interest, where necessary (e.g. by governments, foundations), including with access to information and resources.

The first substantive point on the agenda of an MSP is issue-identification. The various representations or understandings that stakeholders hold of the issue(s) at hand need to be clarified to arrive at a precise question before the MSP. The various understandings need to be clear for everybody involved to further establish what the group is addressing – otherwise, the whole process will be hampered by ongoing battles about what to include and/or to exclude from the discussions. It is highly unlikely that stakeholders will share a common understanding, hence the questions and sub-issues they will want to address will be different. .[7]

Initial scoping of an issue area might also lead to identifying research and knowledge gaps. In such cases, MSP design might involved to commission or initiate such research.

Out of initial scoping and discussions a group of people can emerge who are interested in actively pursuing the setting up of an MSP on a particular issue. This can be used as a starting point for creating a coordinating group of representatives from various stakeholder groups ensuring diversity of views. Upon setting up the MSP, this group needs to be reviewed by all participants of the process and, if necessary, re-composed, so that the process has a coordinating group acknowledged by all involved. An example of such a process is the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI).

It is important to create a mechanism for sharing information and a base for a common knowledge base for the process, ensuring that all concerned have equitable access to the relevant information from the outset. Such a base does not need to be in one place, but should be easily accessible to all. Everybody who might be involved in the process should be informed of this information base and how it is being assembled.

In this initial phase, agreement should also be reached on the language(s) to be used in the process. This will normally depend on the issues and groups who need to be involved. Using one language, such as English, can be exclusive. Many of the examples we looked at reportedly suffered from using one language only, mostly due to lack of time and money. Sufficient resources need to be available for translations, if appropriate.


Stakeholder Identification

Ideally, identification of relevant stakeholders should be guided by consideration of the nature of the issue concerned, and based on communication with stakeholders as well as an open call for participation.

It is essential that all relevant stakeholders are represented in an MSP. It requires careful analysis and consultation among those initially involved to identify all who need to be part of the process and to reach a necessary balance, e.g. of South and North or women and men. This may involve making special efforts to identify potential participants.[8]

Clearly, there is a lot of power involved in the making of decisions on participation. Each process needs to be clear and transparent on who identifies stakeholders, how that is being done, how stakeholders are being reached and informed, etc. Criteria used and processes employed to measure those criteria need to be made transparent and public.

In many cases, such decisions are not clear, and invitations are extended by the facilitating body without (visible) external communication. In other cases, stakeholder groups are being picked from a set group of stakeholders, such as in the CSD dialogue process where the nine Major Groups identified in Agenda 21 define the group to choose from. For example, social groups such as faith communities, the elderly, parliamentarians, the education community, cyclists, or others might be appropriate, depending on the issue at hand. Participation needs to be based on the same social groups as cultural and economic activities in communities, be they global, national or local - particularly as they are relevant to the respective issue. In other words, careful analysis of which are the 'high-impact categories' is crucial – with regard to many issues, for example, gender is such a category and policies affect women and men very differently. In other cases, gender might not be such an important category. Careful "social mapping" can ensure involvement of all parts of a community of stakeholders. Building on earlier experiences can be very useful but developing "traditions" too quickly is dangerous. Societies are dynamic and ever-evolving, new stakeholder groups or differentiations of previously united stakeholder groups might develop and need to be taken into account when "mapping the scene" of relevant stakeholders. There is also a need for mechanisms for inviting additional stakeholders into the process if gaps become clear.

A crucial question is which bodies to approach to represent stakeholder groups. Criteria should include: legitimacy and accountability of stakeholder representatives towards their communities; equity within the represented stakeholder communities as regards their participation; democratic processes of election / appointment of representatives; expertise; commitment to the MSP approach. Well established networks and caucuses of NGOs working on particular issues are in many cases a good starting point.

Critical discussions about the representativeness and legitimacy of stakeholder representatives have focused on NGOs, and certification and self-regulation mechanisms have been suggested (Edwards 2000a, b). Certification is an important option, particularly if the question of who should govern or control a certifying body can be adequately addressed. In many cases, NGOs have been developing mechanisms of self-governance to ensure democratic, transparent and truly participatory processes as a basis of their mandate. Networks such as the CSD NGO Steering Committee[9] have been organising themselves within frameworks of agreed rules aiming to ensure that developing positions and strategies is being done in a representative and democratic manner. Increasing equity is particularly important with regard to regional representation; NGO participation from developing countries needs much more support and resources. - However, one should keep in mind that these questions not only apply to NGOs but other sectors of civil society as well, such as the business community, trade unions, local authorities, women, and so on.

There needs to be sufficient stakeholder involvement to ensure that an MSP is going to have sufficient legitimacy. For example, among NGOs, there seems to be a split developing between those who are prepared to engage in multi-sectoral work and those who are not. If substantial parts of a sector are distancing themselves from a process, it will lack legitimacy[10]. In such cases, it might be better to reconsider the setting up of an MSP and/or to carefully work out what kind of legitimacy it can claim, and   conduct it clearly within those limitations. The question is of course, what criteria should be employed to determine what a "substantial part" of a sector would be?

Often, there are good intentions regarding involvement that are frustrated by the basic infrastructure of involvement. Issues of meeting time, meeting place, transport, childcare, and handicapped accessibility, etc, need to considered. There will be some stakeholders that, for cultural, religious or other reasons, bring their own barriers. Special activities may be required if their input is to be included.

Principally, when decisions require government action, the appropriate policy and regulatory authorities should participate in an MSP. Involvement of governments and/or intergovernmental bodies is also an important strategy to deal with concerns by governments and others that MSPs are intended to weaken or reduce the role of governments. In contrast, government involvement in MSPs ensures that MSPs fulfil an appropriate supplementary and complementary role to governments.[11]

Problems may arise from large numbers seeking to participate. There are limits to how many people can effectively consult in a meeting. However, this problem should not result in exclusion of stakeholder groups but rather in finding creative and constructive ways of inclusion of all while keeping group(s) at manageable sizes.

Various examples studied have employed such creativity: The World Commission on Dams was a small group of 12 members but instituted a larger "Forum" of over 60 organisations around it which acted as a "sounding board" for all processes, drafts, etc., and ensured wider outreach into the various stakeholder networks. For the CSD stakeholder dialogues, NGOs tend to consult within their constituencies and beyond to include, for example, contributions of women and indigenous peoples when preparing for and participating in a dialogue, The same method was employed in the preparations for the Ministerial Dialogue at the 8th Informal Environment Ministers Meeting in Norway, 2000. Groups can also choose to include different phases of enlargement and downsizing in the process.

Voluntary involvement is key. There is no point in trying to impose dialogue or partnerships upon stakeholders. It will create mis-trust and can have a disempowering effect. Empowerment and confidence of stakeholders is not a renewable resource. Partnerships need to be based on trust, equality, reciprocity, mutual accountability and mutual benefit.

Another question concerns possible secondary or tertiary consequences of policies, e.g. agreements within a local community which might affect adjacent communities. If possible, such potential consequences should be addressed, and the question of involving representatives of those such affected needs to be considered.

Each stakeholder group needs to make their own decision about participation in an MSP if they judge that it has a pre-set agenda. The problem can be minimised by consulting stakeholders adequately at  the start of the process itself. Stakeholders need to be informed sufficiently and early enough to make their decision, which includes the right to say "No" to any arrangements. Such information should include what role the MSP groups will play (i.e. advisory, decision-making), what the what the expected time commitment will be and over how long a time period, and what is expected from each participant (how many meetings, how much time outside of meetings).

Problems may arise because people may participate in a process with no intent to follow certain rules of discourse or – in the case of consensus-building or decision-making processes - to reach an agreement. Participants may want to use the process as a stage to put forward their views with no intent of listening or integrating others' views. Based on rules of procedure and any communication ground rules agreed beforehand, the facilitator should point out if an when a stakeholder doesn't play by those rules. Facilitators should not only rely on their own judgement but take on concerns that participants might raise (in private or in the meetings) about the seriousness of other participants. The group then needs to deal with the issue in a problem-solving manner, applying agreed rules of discussion and decision-making.


Participants Identification

Having identified participating stakeholder groups, decisions need to be made as to who should represent those groups at any given meeting. Ideally, stakeholder groups identify who should represent them. The integrity and hence the effectiveness of a process can be compromised if the participating stakeholders are not given the opportunity to determine their representatives through their own processes and mechanisms.

There are, however, numerous restrictions and constraints, which need to be considered in this context. Examples include: time to consult within constituencies who should represent the group; time constraints of people who the group would want to represent them (taking part in MSPs is - for most stakeholders - not part of their job); lack of resources for people to travel; being unavailable or available too late to allow proper planning and decision-making; and language (and restricted availability of translation). Another major restriction to this kind of self-determination is the fact that bodies who initiate MSPs often invite certain people as representatives of their groups, with unknown criteria of selection being employed.

The process of identifying individuals to represent groups is greatly helped by regular election or appointment processes within stakeholder networks and associations – e.g. caucus co-ordinator elections among NGOs, appointment of representatives to particular processes by stakeholder groups such as industry, trade unions and so forth.

Preferably, stakeholder groups would also be transparent to others about their elections or appointment criteria, and about criteria being used to identify individuals with expertise on the respective issues at hand. An MSP process should therefore not only allow and require stakeholder groups to appoint their representatives to the process but also require them to be transparent about the procedures they use to make these decisions. In some cases such as local community participation in MSPs, stakeholder should consider "layered" participation to spread the burden of having to deal with unfamiliar norms and cultures (Hemmati 2000d).

The Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems (SAFS) Caucus to the CSD, for example, carried out an elaborate process to identify the NGO group of representatives to the CSD stakeholder dialogues on sustainable agriculture at CSD-8. Based on the agreed criteria of balancing by gender, region, age and expertise/background (grass roots vs. academic experts; local vs. international expertise, and including a significant number of indigenous peoples representatives), the caucus developed a list of potential members of a team of 20 representatives. This was discussed and agreed in the caucus.

Problems may arise if stakeholder representatives change and different individuals are involved on and off over time. This should be avoided whenever possible. If representatives have to be replaced, they need to be carefully briefed by the person whose part they are to take, and be introduced to the group.

Where government involvement is required, it should be such that it ensures the buy-in from those capable of making the final decision. Where lower-level officials have to take an MSP suggestion with such prior buy-in through the formal decision-making system, the necessary decisions might not be taken.


Facilitation / Organisation Back-Up

During the various phases of an MSP, there is need for certain structural / organisational / institutional support, back-up or facilitation. This is a very important aspect, as a failure of sufficient organisational support may lead to the MSP to fail. Experiences have shown that responsibilities need to be clearly marked and be known to all participants, to avoid diffusion of responsibilities, ensure proper communication, and in general ensure a smooth running of the process. Experiences as well as research also show that flexibility is very important. As MSPs are addressing behavioural changes at least as profound as changes of systems and structures, they need to be supported by a flexible administrative and facilitation structure which can be adapted as processes, their participants and their needs develop over time.

Again, such organisational arrangements should be part of the planning phase, which should include all relevant stakeholders and potential participants. Such arrangements are also closely related to the question of funding, as secretariat services tend to be costly.

MSPs should ideally be designed and facilitated by people who are not stakeholders and have no interest in the outcome of the process. In some cases, that might be possible; in many cases, it won't be – simply because of the complex and wide-ranging nature of issues of sustainable development.

Similar to the goal of objectivity in science and research, it is difficult to think of individuals or institutions who are truly neutral or don't have any interest in a particular process or outcome.

To ensure that there is a trustworthy 'honest broker' in place, organisations charged with designing and facilitating an MSP need to

be explicit about their interests or possible interests;

be a of diverse composition themselves, i.e. made up of representatives of the various stakeholder groups;

be acceptable to everybody involved.

At the international level, United Nations bodies seem appropriate, particular if processes require or benefit from involvement of intergovernmental organisations. United Nations bodies also have the benefit of relative neutrality towards various parties, regions, etc. A problem might be that United Nations and other intergovernmental bodies only represent governments and have to operate on the basis of rules of stakeholder involvement which in most cases are fairly restrictive. These institutions are also quite often reluctant to take on additional administrative tasks, due to already overstretched budgetary and staff resources.

Another option are organisations which are multi-stakeholder themselves, governed by elected representatives of all Major Groups and other stakeholders. Few such organisations exist at the various levels.[12]

Yet another option is to found a facilitating body for the sole purpose of facilitating the MSP in question. Some of the examples we looked at have either fully or partly employed this option – e.g., the World Commission on Dams with its own Secretariat, hybrid bodies / joint project entities of several organisations such as WBCSD / IIED for the Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development Project, etc. Advantages include: that the constitution of such a body can be tailor-made for the purposes of the MSP; that staff will be taken on for the specific task; that fund-raising goes to the specific body and its purposes; that a new body may be perceived as more neutral and having no other accountability structure and responsibility than to the process itself. Disadvantages include the necessary investments in time and resources to found an organisation and provide a legal status which allows it to receive funds of various kinds, and the formality a process can develop once it has a formal structure and organisational basis. Indeed, some experiences have shown that  the lack of formal legal status or constitution has created an informal and flexible framework which benefited the process.[13]

The choice, of course, depends on a number of factors, the most important of which might be the time-scale and size of a process. For preparations of ‘one-off’ events, an MSP-initiator - or, preferably, - a group of various stakeholders agreeing to design an MSP - may assign an appropriate organisation to facilitate the process, or might simply choose to organise the event themselves. Such a procedure needs careful consideration of possible consequences regarding legitimacy and credibility of the process. However, problems can be addressed by ensuring maximum transparency about what is being done and why, and by checking with other stakeholders that the procedure is being perceived as appropriate. The issue can also be addressed by initiating an MSP and for the facilitating organisation to take an explicitly back-seat role throughout the preparations and at the event itself. Different requirements arise in the case of processes of larger size and complexity which take more than a single event and its preparations to be carried out.

Again, it seems advisable that discussions about appropriate organisational set-ups be part of the designing process, and therefore be conducted in a multi-stakeholder fashion as well. Here it is important to tell the relevant people what is being planned, to seek their advice on  who else to be consulted, and to do so. Presenting a fixed and rigid structure and plan is not advisable, rather, initiators of MSPs should demonstrate flexibility in response to the requirements and suggestions of potential participants. Otherwise, the process might lose out on the diversity of participants which will in the end decrease credibility and effectiveness.



MSPs require funding for capacity building and a wide range of operational aspects. If appropriate resources are not available, the process will be in danger of failing due, for example, to lack of participation, facilitation, information dissemination and implementation options. It will also be in danger of being unbalanced or unequal, by putting better resourced stakeholders in more advantageous positions.

Participation requires resources for people to prepare for and attend meetings, to consult within their constituencies, and to build their capacities to influence negotiations at local, national and international levels. Larger and/or long-term processes need a stable funding base for their operations, including organisational and secretariat services.

Fund raising targets and strategies beyond initial start-up funding need to be agreed by the group; roles and responsibilities need to be clearly assigned. Participants need to be fully informed about funding sources, budgets, etc. Keeping the process independent of individual funders is important; mixed funding sources are a way around that problem.

Non-financial contributions such as printing, mailing, gifts of space, etc. can add value and should also be sought.

One suggestion is that the UN, governments and/or independent foundations set up a trust fund to support setting up of MSPs by providing financial resources and other assistance for stakeholder and public awareness and access to information (see, for example, Alexander 2000). This should, as a priority, be invested in the participation and empowerment of groups who are most disadvantaged in terms of resources, such as developing countries representatives and NGOs.

In effect, inadequate funding will undermine the capacities, effectiveness, and possibly the entire potential of MSPs. The challenge here for society is to find mechanisms which enable MSPs to be created around priority issues which require urgent progress, and not just on those that are popular or have wealthy backers. This will be no easy matter to resolve.

In principle, no participant should have a direct role in funding of an MSP, since this could lead to further distortions in power relationships and compromise the integrity of the outcomes. Here, work need to be done in defining the role and mechanisms of independent, purpose-built trusts and other arms-length financial structures designed to ensure adequate funding for the process in question. UN bodies may be well-placed to take the lead in further work on this question.

In weighing up the costs of  funding an MSP process, governments, business and other stakeholders should take into full account the high costs of operating current ‘business as usual’ systems, which often create an adversarial atmosphere. In many cases these are not producing decisions, or decisions which are being implemented. Given the high stakes surrounding many of the sustainability issues (e.g. climate change), it might be readily concluded that an investment in MSPs might prove to be cost-effective, particularly since they offer the possibility of more creative options, and the virtual certainty of a strengthened network of stakeholders.


9.2. Framing


Group composition

There needs to be a rough symmetry of powers by assembling representatives of various stakeholder groups so that there is a balance of view points represented. It is important to identify the 'high impact categories' within each particular MSP – categories that will differ significantly and therefore need to be sufficiently represented and in balance.[14]

MSPs with equal participation from all participating stakeholder groups attempt to increase equity between different sectors of civil society in their involvement and impact. They aim to level the playing field between groups whose 'traditional' lobbying activities largely depend on their resources and are therefore grossly imbalanced.

There also needs to be sufficient diversity to make the largest possible number of resources available to the group. A mix of experts and novices is not harmful but can, in contrast, be helpful (see 7.3.). In MSPs, we can indeed consider all participants experts and novices at the same time: experts of their own views and knowledge, and novices to much of the others' views and knowledge.

An MSP should always include at least two representatives of each stakeholder groups (gender balanced). Research on minority influence (see 7.4.5.) has shown that a single member with a divergent view will be less heard and may her/himself become reluctant to contribute the divergent view. We also know that (power) minority representation needs to be above a certain critical level[15]; this needs to be kept in mind with regard to such broad and over-arching categories as gender or region.

However, in addition to such balances what matters is what and whom is to be represented. For example, gender balance cannot by itself ensure that gender aspects will be addressed. The inclusion of participants with expertise on gender issues is crucial.

People should not be expected to represent more than one stakeholder group because individuals can only a 'wear a limited number of hats' (at least in a balanced manner!) and it makes communicating difficult if a person keeps changing roles (even if that is done explicitly).[16] In some cases, where initiating bodies have restricted the number of dialogue participants to a very small number of people, there are problems having all relevant high impact categories represented and balanced. This is very problematic – again, problems with high numbers should be dealt with more creatively than by unilaterally limiting numbers.

"Groupthink" (extreme loyalty and lack of divergence; see 7.6.) should be avoided by checking that a significant number of participants is dependent on another member or grouping (who would easily assume leadership and dominate the process).


Goals setting

This question relates back to the various types of MSPs. The goals and levels of stakeholder involvement vary considerably: a frank exchange of views; agreeing upon disagreements; exploring possible common ground; achieving (partial) consensus; making decisions; implementing decisions; monitoring and evaluating implementation; revisiting them. Goals need to be achievable and understandable. MSPs raise expectation of participants, and failure or delay could cause frustration. Furthermore, goals perceived as unachievable or unrealistic from the outside and/or relevant (inter)governmental bodies may decrease the MSPs impact on official decision-making.

Agreeing a common goal (and agenda) will be more difficult when differences between participants goals are significant, even more so if the starting point is an area of existing or potential conflict. In these cases and before trying to agree common MSP goals, participants have to first overcome histories of distrustful and confrontational relationships.

In many cases, the decision about the goals of an MSP is taken by the initiating body, through inviting stakeholders to take part in an MSP. However, ideally, goals should be set following an exploratory phase enabling participants to map out the space for a particular MSP. These should then be reviewed by the MSP group, modified where necessary, and adopted. There is a need for a phase allowing people to assess each other's understandings of the issue, to evaluate possible common ground, and to reconsider how far they want their collaboration to go.

This also depends on the level at which the MSP is being undertaken – international ones, no matter if they are "dialogues" or "full MSPs" allow for smaller scales of concrete action (specific development projects and the like) than those at national or local level. Whereas Local Agenda 21 processes might  assemble the relevant actors to renovate a city centre, for example, a global dialogue like the Global Mining Initiative is attempting to go back to local and national constituencies from an international perspective and help them implement possible decisions with a new group of partners at national and local levels.

Time also needs to be allowed for stakeholders to consult anew with their constituencies when new proposals regarding MSP goals, e.g. concrete collaborations, are put forward.


Agenda Setting

Setting a concrete common agenda after agreeing issues and goals is a key MSP design issue. It can be suggested by an initial coordinating group but needs to be put to the group as a whole and be agreed by all participants. MSP participants need to agree how to proceed, how much of an exploratory phase is needed, how much time they need to prepare, how many meetings one would need and what issues they should address in which order, how long meetings should be, how they should be facilitated, documented, etc. Logistical issues (i.e. exploratory phase, time needed for preparation) should be addressed separately from substantive issues for the first meeting (i.e. goals, key issues).

It will be necessary to agree which aspects relating to the agreed issue before the MSP will be addressed in which order. It is very important to keep a close check on power differences throughout this stage, otherwise more powerful and vocal stakeholders will succeed in dominating the agenda with their representation of a problem, and the subsequent exclusion of issues will not reflect the representations and requirements of marginalised groups. As MSPs should be indeed designed to give an equal voice to everybody, enough time and effort should go into this stage.


Setting the time-table

It is vital to meet the requirements of all stakeholders and their constituencies when designing a viable time-table for an MSP. Even a one-off or single event requires a preparatory phase; hence, all MSPs need a time-table.

For example, when preparing for the Ministerial Dialogue at the 8th Informal Environment Ministers Meeting in Norway, 2000, NGOs insisted on including the contributions of women and Indigenous Peoples, working through their respective CSD caucuses. The indigenous peoples caucus had to decline such involvement as there was not enough time to consult the draft NGO background papers within their constituencies. Instead, they sent a representative to speak at the dialogue, and the NGO background paper included contributions only by NGOs and the women's caucus.

The best solution to such problems is to design the time-table through consultations and agree it among participants.


9.3. Inputs


Stakeholder preparations

All stakeholder groups need to have equitable access to all information. The process of designing an MSP should include what is required of participating stakeholder groups as regards their preparations. Participants need to agree upon a preparatory process, depending on issues, goals, scope, level, resources and so on. There are different options, which should be discussed, for example:

Experiences have shown that preparations in written format can be beneficial. Requiring all participating stakeholder groups to prepare initial position papers can be a viable tool. Preparatory documents should have an agreed, common format. As a minimum, they should be fully referenced and include background information. They also need to be submitted well in advance to allow others to study them.

Preparations can also include an analysis of initial background or position papers. If an MSP includes extensive preparations among and within stakeholder groups and involves publication of such initial background / position papers before any actual meeting, each stakeholder group can also prepare initial reactions to the views of others. This can allow for quicker progress, as it allows participants to speak for their constituencies even when reacting to positions of others.

The MSP coordinating group and/or the facilitating body can be charged with analysing the preparatory material in a manner that encourages discussion at the MSP meeting(s). One option is to put all positions into a matrix format for comparison (as was done in the above-mentioned examples).

Another option is the so-called "(cognitive) mapping": Via interviews or analysis of material or a combination of the two (by an independent body), trains of thought, points and arguments are mapped out in a graphic structure which not only portrays the content of a paper but also the structure of causes and effects, values and proposed action and other components of the views that a person or a group has of a particular subject. Such "individual maps" can be combined into "meta-maps" portraying the various arguments, thoughts and suggestions of a number of individuals or groups. Meta-maps can then also be put forward to a group for discussion. Nowadays, there is software available making it relatively easy to develop such maps out of text material.[17] It will be worth experimenting with such techniques in MSPs, particularly in phases preparatory to actual meetings. Any such efforts need of course be agreed by the group. It will be worth experimenting with such techniques in MSPs, particularly in phases preparatory to actual meetings.

All overview material produced should be made available to all participants well in advance of a meeting where positions are to be discussed. In MSPs that are one-off events, pre-meeting communication is crucial before and after overview material is available.

As a general rule, there needs to be sufficient communication amongst stakeholders before an actual meeting. Email list servers and telephone conferences are options which many of our examples have used. Sufficient resources need to be available on all sides to enable equitable pre-meeting communication.

MSPs can also include components of group ‘brain–storming’, when everybody is asked to put forward ideas which will be collected without initial judgement and put to the group later for discussion. Brain-storming cannot always be prepared through consultations among constituencies as it capitalizes on the creativity generated in the actual face-to-face group interaction.

With regard to any dialogue or consensus-building phases, which may include ideas and suggestions which have not been made available to all participants before the meeting, there needs to be a group decision on how to deal with the question of consultation with constituencies. Do people get to consult with their constituencies and reconvene? This will depend on the type of MSP. If it is a one-off event which starts and finishes over a day, such consultation will not be possible. If the dialogue goes on for a couple of days, then it might be possible to consult by email. Again, equity needs to be ensured; not all stakeholder groups' constituencies have the same kind of access to the Internet.

Preparation of initial position papers can run the risk of having MSP group members with fixed positions, creating a barrier towards finding common ground and agreement. Thus, the first step can also be to bring participants together to agree upon a common vision of what they are trying to achieve or what their community (country or world) would look like if they were successful in achieving their goals.  After the vision, the MSP group members can come to agreement on their goals.[18] This provides a common framework for working together – which will be especially useful once different positions become clear.

Various options can of course be combined; for example, a first step of developing a common vision can be followed by preparing position papers by stakeholder groups. Such papers would then focus on outlining strategies to achieve the common vision. Over an ongoing process, mechanisms of checking back with constituencies, e.g. when moving towards a decision, need to be clear so that representatives can speak for their constituencies when possible agreements are different from the initial position of their group.

An important question in this context is the representation of stakeholder groups by MSP participants. MSP participants may want to design a process where participants can speak for their constituencies, which will require consultations within constituencies. Horizontal communications within stakeholder groups is as important as communications between stakeholder groups. It might be useful to agree processes of acceptable consultation processes within constituencies and even mechanisms to monitor if and how that is being done. As a minimum requirement, participating stakeholder representatives need to make clear on whose behalf they are speaking and with what authority. Participating stakeholder groups need to be transparent about how they carry out the agreed preparatory process, e.g. how they consult within their constituencies. Stakeholders may choose to conduct their preparations publicly, e.g. via open email list servers as some of the CSD NGO caucuses do.

Preparation should also include, if possible, information about the modes of communication to be used during the MSP. For example, it may be helpful to reproduce the ground rules / guidelines developed here (see below). Or, even better, you might choose to adapt those for the specific purpose of the MSP.


Communication ground rules

As described above, we have used several kinds of philosophical-theoretical and empirical resources to develop a set of principles and practical rules to guide communication within MSPs. We have aimed to extract from the various sources what seems to be common conclusions of the various approaches and relevant to MSPs.

One commentator contributed an example illustrating how inappropriately some people deal with consensus-building: A person, supposedly funding and running a consensus process, when asked how the process was going, replied "We've nearly convinced them, the bastards".

Modes of stakeholder communication will need to be culturally specific and be designed depending on the problem area and the stakeholders involved. The following principles, rules and practical mechanisms are being recommended for consideration when deciding on the ground rules for stakeholder communication:

During discussion, participants must make every effort to be as frank and candid as possible, while maintaining a respectful interest in the views of others. Participants need to refrain from personal attacks and avoid placating, blaming, preaching, dominating or passively resisting. Confrontation, blank ultimatums and prejudicial statements are not helpful. An atmosphere that cultivates directness, openness, objectivity, and humility, can be viewed as pre-requisite for successful dialogue and consensus-building.

To help understanding and clarify perceptions, participants & facilitators should be encouraged to restate one another's views in their own words ("active listening").

Participants should refrain from presuming motives of others and rather be encouraged to ask direct questions.

Honesty & trustworthiness of the individuals, communities and institutions involved: the stability of every interaction depend on them. Participants must argue on a logical basis, giving their own opinion while seeking out common ground as well as differences. 

Brain-storming can be helpful: conducting a session of putting forward ideas and collecting them without judgments for later discussion can create a larger pool of more creative ideas. 
When an idea it put forth, it becomes the property of the group. This sounds simple but it is a very profound principle: All ideas cease to be the property of any individual, sub-group or constituency.

'Learning exercises' that have been developed in Knowledge Management approaches[19], can be very helpful in order to draw out the success factors of other processes and agreements. This can be done by inviting others with such experience into the group and/or in separate meetings with experienced people. The group can use the outcomes to deepen the pool of ideas.

All participants need to be open to change when embarking on a communication process as outlined above. When listening to others carefully, when striving for integration, when giving our ideas to the group, we are likely to change because we have learned.
A true dialogue cannot be entered into with the goal of "getting one's way". It must be entered into with the expectation of learning, which means nothing less but of being changed through the process.

Allow space and time for different modes of communication, socio-emotional as well as strictly task-oriented. Humour - a good laugh - and space for informal encounters are legitimate tools and can go a long way in helping the group to build trust and a sense of common ownership of the process, as well as release tension arising from differences in viewpoints.

Again, problems may arise because people may participate in a process with no intent to follow the rules of communication. Based on the rules of procedure agreed beforehand, this should be put to the whole group through the facilitator. The group then needs to deal with the issue in a problem-solving manner, applying agreed rules of discussion and decision-making.


Power gaps

Stakeholder communication, particularly in processes involving consensus-building and implementation, need to provide the opportunity for participants to work together as equals to realize acceptable actions or outcomes without imposing the views or authority of one group over the other.

However, fundamental differences exist between stakeholders, e.g. in knowledge and information, nature and amount of resources, and size - defining significant power gaps and unfair distribution of bargaining and negotiating power. For example, local and indigenous communities and trans-national corporations are both stakeholders, yet they are rarely on a level playing field (Hemmati 2000d).

Constructive stakeholder communication between unlikely partners must be built slowly and carefully. Communication and trust must be established before engaging in negotiations. It is therefore essential to devote sufficient time to dialogue to develop mutual understanding. Crucial components of dialogue processes, such as honesty, openness and trustworthiness are indispensable but it takes time and commitment for everybody to demonstrate these qualities.

There is no point in treating power and power gaps as taboos – they need to be addressed openly and creatively. This of course needs to happen early in the process, often before trust has been built. Indeed, addressing this difficult question openly and discussing how to deal with it can significantly help to build that trust.

Key conditions of dialoguing and decision-making in processes within unequal power relationships are to:

address power relations, discrimination or marginalisation; and 

work on the basis of formal procedures of communication which have been equitably agreed upon within the group.

If these conditions are not met, there will be a great risk that the powerless will have no real voice, no real involvement in the issues, and that no partnerships can develop. This problem relates to questions of capacity-building for MSP participants in terms of access to information and resources, political experience, negotiating skills, and so forth.


Capacity building for participation

Ideally, MSP participants should be well-equipped to reflect their stakeholder groups’ views and interests. There will, however, be areas where no one stakeholder group has sufficient background or knowledge, or where there is an imbalance of access to information, knowledge and thus power.

Where participants lack this knowledge and/or processes lack that balance, for example on cross-cutting issues such as global institutional architecture and process, trade policy, etc., then capacity building measures for the group should be considered.

In many cases, there is also a lack of knowledge of global structures and processes, particularly with regard to often intricate cross-cutting issues such as of international institutional arrangements and agreements and trade relations. For the benefit of all parties planning to engage in MSPs, information about relevant agreements, policies and legislation needs to be shared widely. It also needs to be made available in appropriate format, such as in local languages and non-expert vocabulary. If, for example, community-based organisations are to effectively participate in international processes, they need to be briefed about the context of their local experiences.[20]

National and local level political processes may be even more difficult to understand than those at the international level, as national and local policy processes tend to be more opaque, involving uncertain interests and a mix of decisions. In order to achieve optimum results, providing information about such policy processes would therefore be desirable, where possible.

What capacities and skills are necessary? Here the list is long, but includes issues as knowledge about relevant policies, agreements, institutions; language skills; negotiating skills; time and people / representatives; and capacities to consult within constituencies. It might also be valuable for MSP members to participate in trainings and practice group decision-making skills beyond conflict resolution, including communication, running effective meetings, team building, negotiation, and facilitation. It is important to note that capacity-building needs to meet needs as defined by the 'recipients' – based on self-evaluations. Designing capacity-building measures therefore needs to be an interactive process of those receiving and those offering capacity-building.

Designing capacity-building measures needs to be an interactive and equitable process of those receiving and those offering capacity-building. The group needs to openly address those questions and decide upon which capacities and skills are necessary and who should provide capacity-building. Independent 'honest brokers' of process and issue knowledge are required to provide capacity-building, and, again, the question of language(s) and translation is important.

Finally, the group needs to decide where to seek the funds for capacity-building measures, if necessary. As with the question of MSP funding in general, independence of funders is important (see below).


9.4. Dialogue / Meeting


Communication channels

In the beginning of an MSP, face-to-face meetings certainly help to build trust (e.g. Renn et al 1996). They provide direct interaction in a manner that allows for more channels of communication to be used (e.g. body-language) and offer more opportunities for informal contact and issue exploration. On the other hand, electronic communication can provide a good basis for neutralising differences in status and personality, as related to gender, age and ethnicity. Nonverbal characteristics will have less effect which can benefit minorities. Research also suggests that electronic communication is more likely to reflect diversity. Written communication seems to focus people more effectively on the contents of the message. On the other hand, without inflection or body language the tone and intention of electronic statements can be easily misconstrued. "Communicate clearly, not cleverly" seems to be a good guiding line for electronic communication. Thus, the Internet could be the ideal tool for collecting suggestions to a given problem in a brain-storming effort or for getting an overview of the diversity of opinions on a given subject matter. However, to for consensus-building purposes, the Internet is not the most useful tool.

When allowing virtual communication, the group needs to check if this approach is feasible for all participants. The same applies to the use of certain IT / software tools (such as Lotus Notes; MS Word Track Changes). Some participants may work under tight constraints in terms of equipment and capacities. Again, inequitable Internet access can create enormous biases in favour of those who can access the web regularly and cheaply.

In conclusion, the choice of communication channels depends on the MSP phase; resources available to all participants; scale and size of the process; and cultural preferences. The guiding line should be that the group agrees what kind of meetings are necessary for what purposes.



Facilitating / chairing

MSP meetings need facilitation and a facilitator need to accepted by all participants as a suitable person without a direct stake in the process or the decision to be taken. In several of the examples studied (and in interviews with people involved in them), it comes out very strongly that professional facilitators are seen as having a role to play – they can usually be accepted by everybody as impartial and are familiar with useful group work techniques.[21] Facilitators who do not have expertise on a particular issue can also act more neutrally and will be perceived as not having a stake in the discussions. However, people also feel that a facilitator's commitment and integrity, high standing, political stature, experience in the political processes and expertise on the issues, charisma and other personal characteristics can be a crucial factor for the success of an MSPs.[22] On the other hand, outside facilitators can also provide training on meeting facilitation to build the MSP groups (or community's) capacity to facilitate an ongoing process themselves. Using several facilitators, e.g. representatives from different stakeholder groups, to co-chair meetings or facilitate on a rotating basis, is another option that should be considered. These options should be  discussed in the group so that an agreement can be reached which everyone is satisfied with.

As the goal of MSPs is to discover common ground – agreements, or agreements upon disagreements - and to build trust among participants, facilitators should encourage people to speak freely and invite every participant to take the floor. This also means actively drawing out quieter participants. Facilitators need to keep track of everybody's contributions to pull out aspects of common ground and to summarise what has been said at regular intervals. They also need to keep track of which points might be missing in the discussion and encourage the group to address aspects  that haven't come up yet.

Facilitators should carefully keep to set time-tables and agreed speaking time, which need to be the same for everybody[23]. Facilitators  also need to be sensitive regarding issues on which participants will need to consult with their constituencies.

The use of flip-charts, meta-plan or other facilitation techniques can be very useful to keep track of what is being said, enable summarising, and help decision-making. Such techniques also allow for the same pieces of information to be displayed in various modes (oral, written), which helps participants to follow discussions and actively contribute. Such techniques can also relieve participants from taking notes themselves, allowing people to look at each other rather than at their note pads, which helps to create trust.

Other group work techniques worth considering include scenario workshops, future labs, round table debates, citizen juries, and the like. It is worth experimenting with different techniques.

MSPs do not avoid decisions or require abdication of leadership – but call upon leaders to forge partnerships that work toward developing solutions. Facilitation, which to a certain extent takes a leadership role, needs to be flexible and responsive to different situations and communication styles. Therefore, facilitators need considerable diagnostic skills to correctly assess a given situation.

Facilitators need to help create an open and positive atmosphere which will encourage respectful listening and possibly learning and changing of views among participants. Facilitators should help the participants and the group to surface 'what is hidden', allowing time for each participant to share concerns, thoughts, and feelings. At the same time, facilitators need to help the group to stay focused. Facilitators should also help ensure that all participants feel recognised and part of the group; recognition and belonging are important human needs.

Facilitators have an essential role to play to ensure equity in discussions. Powerful people tend to speak more and more assertively, criticize more, speak more commandingly, interrupt others, and general exert more influence (see 7.8.). Often, powerful participants will also seek to marginalize the message of the minority if it threatens their self-interest. They may also attempt to marginalize the messenger and undermine the status and credibility of minority representatives. In such cases, 'dialogue' is not what it should be but "becomes a temporary anti-depressant or sedative, buying time for the powerful to act with impunity" (Franklin 1999).

In cases of conflict, the facilitator should encourage participants to focus on the "positive intent" or "grain of truth" in their opponent's position. This can be done through encouraging participants to restate opposing views in one's own words ("active listening" or "mirroring"). When exploring differences, facilitators should ask problem-solving questions, not judgmental ones – and encourage all participants to do so.

When summarising, differences should be stated clearly, and no pressure to conform should be allowed. Stating and restating common ground and agreements along the way can help to build confidence and momentum.

When decision is stalled, the facilitator can summarise points of agreement to re-focus the group and build on common ground. Asking participants with dissenting views to suggest alternatives can be another important tool to move forward. When no agreement can be reached on an issue, the facilitator (or participants) can suggest to agree to revisit it at next meeting.

In some cases, it might be worth considering working with special facilitators to be the link into particular stakeholder groups. For example, at the local level, it might be advisable to work with local facilitators to develop appropriate meeting styles (Hemmati 2000d).

Suggestions regarding how to deal with participants who do not 'play by the rules' have been outlined above and facilitators have a key responsibility to deal with such behaviour and/or concerns appropriately.



Rapporteurs (or persons responsible for reporting on the group's activities) need to be assigned beforehand and agreed by the group, as does the documentation process itself. Rapporteuring needs to be done in the most neutral fashion possible, reflecting the full breadth and depth of discussions. If summaries and reports are not perceived as truly representative of what happened, the whole process will suffer with regard to credibility, participants' commitment and the quality of decisions. The coordinating group (or facilitating team, MSP facilitating body) should suggest rapporteurs and a documentation process and put that to the group for decision.

In the example of the Lower Columbia River Basin process, the group worked with different stakeholder groups providing rapporteurs on a rotating basis. This can not only spread the work load more equally but also increase the sense of ownership on all sides.



The following suggestions regarding decision-making of course only apply to processes which aim at agreements.

Participants need to agree in the beginning of the process on what decision-making process will be used.[24] Consensus is the preferred method of decision-making because it will generate better solutions and commitment by all. Seeking consensus will urge participants to find an agreement that incorporates all viewpoints. Consensus can take different shapes – for example, unanimity (total agreement), or willingness to step aside and live with the "whole package" (and not block if one disagrees with one or the other point). Groups should also explicitly decide if and when they want to enter into decision-making.[25] It also needs to be made clear at which point consensus should be tested and/or a vote being sought, and what majorities are needed to constitute a decision by vote. We suggest the following: The group should strive for unanimity as this fosters patience exploring possible common ground, but a majority vote should be introduced to bring about a conclusion and make the decision, if necessary. The group should make the decision about the appropriate time of voting. A decision can be reached when the respective majorities of the stakeholder groups represented are in favour of it. Minority viewpoints should be recorded in final decisions when consensus can not be achieved.

Phases of decision-making should not be entered too early. Groups of high diversity can have a tendency towards depolarisation and compromise (see 7.4.). As long as the discussion process is not exhausted and not all ideas have been put forth and scrutinized, however, the group should refrain from entering into decision-making. Groups need to be challenged to deliver maximum creativity which can be an important task for the facilitator. Premature consensus or majority rule tends to lead to decreased commitment to a decision and will therefore be an obstacle to implementation.

The fundamental right to self-determination of communities needs to be respected. In cases where a potential agreement affects the future lives of a stakeholder group, they need to have the right to say "No". For example, if all stakeholders except the local community agree to a tourism development plan, the plan should not be carried out. Discussions on the question if a "No" is being based on sufficient information should be allowed. However, placating participants as making uninformed or incompetent decisions is destructive and needs to be avoided.

There are a number of possible procedures that will help groups to agree without compromising prematurely:

Participants should avoid arguing for favourite proposals but make innovative suggestions. They should be challenged to be creative and integrating, to seek the best ideas, not to win support for their own ideas.

Participants should avoid "against-them" statements.

Participants should avoid agreeing just to avoid conflict.

Participants should view differences as helpful.

When decision is stalled, the facilitator should state points of agreement to build on.

When no agreement can be reached on an issue, the group can agree to revisit it at next meeting.

Acceptable decisions are those which integrate the needs and requirements of everybody. Sometimes this will not be possible and trade-offs or compensations might be sought – if all parties agree.

Again, based on the rules of procedure agreed beforehand, the facilitator should point out if and when a stakeholder doesn't play by those rules, and address concerns that participants might raise (in private or in the meetings) about the seriousness of other participants. The group then needs to deal with the issue in a problem-solving manner, applying agreed rules of discussion and decision-making.



MSPs need clear goals, cut-off points and concrete, identifiable outcomes. Participants need to develop a sense of ownership not only of the process but also of an output that they feel comfortable promoting – a concrete set of suggestions, toolkits or subsequent agreed actions. Once the group agrees that this point is reached, an MSP should be closed.


9.5. Outputs



Depending on the type of process and the timing vis-à-vis official decision-making processes, there are various conditions that will define the type of documentation process required. For example, it is always preferable to have draft minutes and reports put to the group for review before they are published. If there is enough time, these can be sent out to participants, giving a clear deadline for comments. Unless otherwise stated, no comment should count as agreement (i.e. one of the rare cases where silence can be taken to mean assent). If there isn't enough time, drafts should be discussed with the group present directly after the meeting[26]. Often, a facilitator's summary - rather than a document formally endorsed by the group - is the best choice, particularly if there isn't enough time for participants to check back with their constituencies. Endorsements by stakeholders will require various procedures of constituency agreement and will be a necessary component in decision-making and implementation processes. These will not be required in dialogue processes where the group has been able to discuss a chair's summary, and which is clearly labelled as such.

All documentation should be forwarded to other stakeholder groups and made publicly available.


Action plan / implementation

Once a decision has been reached, all of those involved need to make sure that is implemented, and to engage their constituencies' support. This requires opportunities for participants to check back with their constituencies and enough time for consultations within stakeholder groups. Without solid support from the represented stakeholder groups, decisions will not be implemented successfully.

In cases when consensus was achieved, everybody involved should support it and do their part in implementing it. In cases of agreements reached by majority vote, different option can be promoted: On the one hand, one can argue that once an agreement has been reached, both the majority favouring it and those originally opposed should respect, support, and carry out the decision. However, that will only happen when minorities accept majority decisions. Without such acceptance the result may be "tyranny of the majority" and minorities may not do their part. Only when everybody does their part can a decision be properly evaluated and changed if genuine deficiencies in the decision are detected.[27] On the other hand, individuals should always have the right to speak out against a decision even if they participated in a process. Participating in an MSP should not mean that people give up their right to oppose a decision down the road that they do not agree with.

Any implementation needs to be based on agreed roles and responsibilities. It needs a clear plan outlining who is to do what, when, where and with whom. An action plan needs to be agreed by the group. It needs to be developed by an assigned person, group, or body and put to the group for discussion. Otherwise, so-called 'diffusion of responsibilities' - when everybody believes somebody else but them is responsible for carrying out a task - is likely to take place.

The group should also decide how to monitor implementation. Monitoring activities can be assigned to a group made up of different stakeholders to ensure neutrality and balance. Another issue is the question of how to deal with non-compliance. MSPs which involve implementation activities need to agree what to do if stakeholders don't do what they agree they would.

Dialogue processes need to provide the space to possibly develop into advanced MSPs which include decision-making and implementation – if groups want to move from talking to joint action. However, participants need to agree on how to take the process forward, who should facilitate it, where the additional funds should come from and who should raise them, etc. Principally, groups need in such cases to engage in a supplementary MSP design process.


Ongoing MSPs

MSP groups may decide to move into a new phase, possibly with a new set-up, to pursue promoting the outcomes, engaging in implementation and/or monitoring of implementation. In some cases, follow-up will involve some kind of institutionalising, which needs to be worked out by the group. This may include finding a new institutional "home" for a process; engage in new fund-raising activities; and so on. As some examples such as the Global Reporting Initiative and the World Commission on Dams have shown, transitions need to be carefully planned, prepared and managed.


Linkage into official decision-making

Most MSPs which are conducted around governmental or intergovernmental processes are, first and foremost, informing processes. Decision-making bodies should make very clear how the outcomes of stakeholder involvement is being used in decision-making; and this information needs to be available well in advance of stakeholder involvement.

However, the often purely informing role of stakeholder participation around (inter-)governmental bodies should be expanded. "Traditional processes of coordination need to be supplemented by a series of practical arrangements which provide for more active, cooperative management (…) both within the United Nations system and extending to other involved intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations" (Annan 2000a). 'Stakeholder dialogues' and other mechanisms of MSPs informing official decision-making should also benefit from immediately involving stakeholders them in the steps towards implementation. Stakeholders could be invited to study decisions and engage in action-oriented discussions on how to implement them. For example, the stakeholder dialogues at the beginning of CSD meetings could be complemented by sessions towards the end of the meeting. Stakeholders could be brought together again to work out how to implement the decisions, which tools, strategies and partnerships would be needed, etc. This would capture stakeholders' engagement and could generate more commitment, spark off partnerships and concrete pilot projects and programmes as outcomes, the results of which could be fed back into the policy-making process at an agreed time. 'Stakeholder implementation conferences' around official events would be another option in order to involve stakeholders more directly, particularly in developing models of implementation.

Such a mechanism could be taken one step further by consulting a multi-stakeholder forum on draft (inter)governmental decisions and resolutions. This would provide feedback to governments as to the practicability and likelihood of implementation of policies. Such an approach implies some stakeholder involvement  in official decision-making itself and would need political decisions to be taken by governments and the relevant intergovernmental bodies.[28] However, as Reinicke et al. (2000: 117) point out, "it is the duty of the United Nations to lay out to its members the challenges that face them at the dawning of a new millennium and provide them with an achievable agenda for meeting those challenges".

MSPs are meant to effectively give "a voice, not a vote" (Edwards 2000: 29) – or, rather: voices, not votes. This principle, "structured to give every interest in civil society a fair and equal hearing - is crucial to resolving the tensions that have emerged over NGOs and their role" (ibid.). The same applies to the private sector. For this principle to be an acceptable guiding line, certain conditions have to be met, options include certification and self-regulation, and increased equity between various civil society actors – e.g. between different stakeholders such as business and NGOs, between stakeholder representatives from developing and developed countries, between women and men, between rich and poor, between ethnic majorities and minorities and Indigenous Peoples, and so on.

Discussions on principles of stakeholder participation are timely and underway. (Inter)governmental bodies should experiment with different mechanisms and share experiences.


9.6. Throughout the Process


Mechanisms of meta-communication[29]

Multi-stakeholder processes need to include mechanisms allowing participants to reflect upon the process they are participating in, throughout the process. Even if issues such as agenda, participants, ground rules of communication and decision-making, necessary structures, resources, capacity-building and so forth have been agreed by participants at the outset, there needs to be space for reflection upon that same process, i.e. meta-communication. How this is best done will depend on length, scope and size of the group involved, and structural and organisational arrangements within the respective MSP.

For example, meta-communication can be ensured by facilitators asking for reflections on the process at certain points in meetings or through feedback loops being coordinated by a process secretariat. It is important that such feedback exercises are being suggested to the group to discuss in a transparent and inclusive way and that all participants are included in the exercise. Some level of formality of such meta-communication is therefore desirable.

As has been underlined before, groups increase their effectiveness if they work on the basis of an agreed set of rules – hence they need to communicate about the way they communicate. Meta-communication also allows space for dealing with problems which arise when members feel others aren't playing by the rules. In culturally mixed contexts, which is the case in many MSPs, meta-communication also allows participants to find out what are indeed cultural differences, which are more common than we generally tend to believe. For the process of meta-communication and agreeing procedures, it is helpful if the group is provided with information about the effects of high diversity, so that they can creatively deal with problems that they might not be aware of.


Relating to non-participating stakeholders

MSPs should be kept open for input from non-participating stakeholders. This can be done via a frequently updated website, which is an easy but also problematic strategy (see above). Participating stakeholder groups should also consider calling for inputs from non-participating groups, particularly in cases where the number of participants has been limited.

For example, the NGO group has called for input from the women's caucus and the Indigenous Peoples caucus when preparing for CSD stakeholder dialogues or for the Bergen Ministerial Dialogues. Another option has been demonstrated by the World Commission on Dams process, which consisted of the Commission itself, with 12 members, plus a larger Forum with over 50 organisations. The Forum served as a "sounding board" for all process considerations and draft material and allowed the inclusion of a larger number of groups and a larger variety of stakeholder views.

Such calls for input need to provide clear information on how it will be considered and used. Similar to "hearings" and "consultations" that (inter)governmental bodies often use to obtain stakeholders' views, those who invest time and resources in providing such input need to be able to make an informed decision on weather they feel it is worth the effort. Experience has shown that people won't participate (again) if they don't see where their inputs are going. That doesn't mean that an MSP has to take every input on board but it is required to be clear about the processing of such inputs.

Problems arising from non-participating stakeholder groups aiming to disrupt and hinder the multi-stakeholder process should be addressed within the group in order to develop a common strategy, if possible.

Many of the other issues raised with regard to relating to the general public also apply here.


Relating to the general public

Relating to the general public is very important. MSPs in sustainable development are new developments in decision-finding and governance, and touch on issues of concern to everybody. Many processes are specialist ones, addressing issues which are highly technical and require a professional or quasi-professional knowledge base. In these cases, the choice should not be to put relating to the general public low on the priority list, but rather (as mentioned above) to face the challenge and make the process and its issues understandable to the general public. Even though sustainability questions relate directly to people’s everyday lives, many involved in sustainable development debates often find it very difficult to explain what they're doing in a language free of jargon. This observation applies equally to Local Agenda 21 processes as to those around the United Nations. A useful motto for all participants can be: “communicate as if people mattered”.

To facilitate this process, consideration should be given to engaging people (and 'experts'!) from outside the process to convey the message to the general media[30]. This is a question of resources and prioritisation – and should not be forgotten when fund-raising for an MSP!

A good information strategy includes identifying target audiences; developing partnerships with key information sources; identifying appropriate methods and channels; creating effective messages; and evaluating strategies.[31] To optimise public communication, it will be also important to release information progressively throughout all stages of a process and not only to present a finished product. This should be the norm, and not just in cases when one wants to open the process for input and comments from the public.

Within the MSP, it will be crucial to agree on who shall relate to the public – e.g. through agreed statements / web site contents etc. – and how. In general, every participant should be able to share information to the public and present it from their perspective. To avoid public confusion, however, the communication from the process / group as a whole should be agreed and coordinated. As noted, a process might decide to assign this task to an outside, independent body .

Discussions should also include the choice of media. Especially in the case of global processes, an MSP might need a mix of channels, as different media are easily accessible in different parts of the world. Television, in connection with Internet sites, might be suitable in industrialised countries, particularly the US, while radio could be more appropriate in developing or industrialising countries. The reality is that huge numbers of people are not consulted or readily accessible to decision-making processes. In structuring an MSP, decisions need to be made about how close to the affected communities the process shall take place. In some cases, it might be appropriate to take the MSP to the people, rather than locate it in, say, at UN Headquarters in New York.

Hohnen (2000a) notes that one of the main challenges "for the designers of multi-stakeholder processes" will be to "enable and encourage inputs from parties both within and without the process" (ibid.: 7), saying that the Internet offers an "ideal tool for facilitating transparency and cost-effective input from civil society throughout any dialogue".

The advent of internet indeed enables wide public communication and consultation. For this to be effective, however, several concerns need to be addressed. As noted above, these include communication with disadvantaged groups (victims and/or beneficiaries of the ‘digital divide’), and the need to summarise materials and key questions in a manner than encourages and enables public interest and input. The Internet is a means, rather than an end. The placing of information on the web should not be regarded as “communication” or “consultation”, but as a means of enhancing it. The greater the focus of the MSP, and the extent to which it can be concrete about the choices to be made, and their implications, the greater the chance will be that the public will engage.

Web-sites can be regularly updated, are relatively cheap to maintain once they are set up and running, and are hardly restricted with regard to the amount of information which can be put up. They can be interactive and include message boards, chat rooms, list servers, etc. They can also allow web-casting of meetings, provision of video-streaming and radio broadcasts.



9.7. A Concluding Comment

The issues and examples analysed in the present report do not allow for developing a “one-size–fits-all’  formula for all kinds of MSPs. Nor would that be necessary. Rather, the issues raised should be taken as a check-list of aspects which need to be addressed when designing, carrying out and evaluating an MSP.

Despite a great number of processes which have been carried out over the last few years, and those which are on-going at the moment (of which there seems to be an ever-increasing number), it is remarkable that there is little communication between the various processes. One reason appears to be that people have typically worked within specific sectors, such as environmental sectors or human rights, or at different levels (international, regional, national and local). In pursuit of their specific goals, they have traditionally built networks within their sectors but rarely across the sectors and issues.

As the sustainability debate has demonstrated, however, there is a high degree of inter-connectedness of issues and their solutions. There is now a real question about the limits to which advocacy on a single technology, policy or product can be effective. MSPs are being created not only because (as Hohnen 2001 has argued) "business as usual, government as usual and protest [or: advocacy] as usual" are not working well enough. They are emerging because the solutions are often as complex as the problems, and all stakeholders have ideas about possible solutions and need to be part of them. The challenge is to provide them with the fora to bring their wisdom to the table effectively.

As this report has shown, what is potentially emerging is a large amount of expertise and experience which seems at the moment to be scattered and rather un-connected. People carrying that expertise, however, form a rich and resourceful 'community of practice'[32]. As we move ahead in developing MSPs, it will be important to enable them to network, share their experiences and create opportunities to learn from each other. This could start off with more informal networking via an email list server; and lead to common learning exercises, the results of which could be made available for people who are designing new or adapted multi-stakeholder processes.

Within or in close collaboration with the United Nations, it would be desirable to set up some kind of unit or mechanism for information exchange and overall coordination or advice on matters of multi-stakeholder participation. Reinicke et al. (2000) have suggested a clearinghouse to act as an information hub. This should also include developing material for member states, laying out the various options and experiences as well as suggestions on how to move forward. Such a unit would benefit from several staff being seconded in by various stakeholders groups organisations.

[1] Also see Reinicke 2000, identifying four key challenges raised by non-state actor involvement in public policy networks: the 'selection challenge'; the 'inclusion challenge'; the 'asymmetric power challenge'; and the 'legitimacy challenge''.

[2] An example which is not included in this study but offers insights on how to go about designing an MSP in a multi-stakeholder fashion is the development of the Urban Environmental Policy in Durban, South Africa. In stage 1 of the process, consultations with stakeholders lead to a 'public workshop' and an 'officials workshop', our of which the facilitating agency developed a draft process agreement document. This was the put to review by the MSP founding meeting which involved all stakeholders.  (Commonground, South Africa, 2000)

[3] "Conflict: The perceived incompatibility of goals between two or more parties" (Smith & Mackie 1995, Glossary). Note that the definition refers to perceived incompatibility. One outcome of an MSP can be discovering that people's perceptions of one another are inaccurate. For a discussion on factors that make environmental problems especially contentious, see Dietz 2001; and Annex II: Glossary.

"Of course, such dialogue circles [as Sustainable Development Councils] are easier to initiate and manage before any lines get drawn in the sand. If conflict is already a factor, 'multi-stakeholder' processes can still occur but the stakes rise and the model changes to conflict resolution. (…) … they remain a versatile tool for keeping people talking and reminding everyone their adversaries are human, too" (The Earth Council).

[4] This is also an example for the need to uphold the right to say "No" to plans and developments. Local communities need to have that right, even when they engage in a multi-stakeholder planning and decision-making process.

[5] Also see the AA1000 Standard developed by the Institute of Social and Ethical Accountability, which requires that a management system documents the ways in which stakeholders were identified (see Bendell 2000b: 2).

[6] However, all governmental or intergovernmental decision-making bodies should be obliged to continually evaluate their work and pursue ongoing dialogue / consensus-building with the wider community – in the form of multi-stakeholder dialogues - to assess and, if necessary, revise their decisions.


[7] This is in fact very much in tune with recommendations coming out of family and marriage therapy – the most important phase is often the first one, when people are asked to develop their definition(s) of a problem. It forces people to listen carefully and to role-take. Experiences have shown that investing time and effort into this is a crucial success factor.

[8] In some of the examples studied (see Chapter 7) this has been the case, e.g. in the UN FfD hearings where the Secretariat actively seeked out business representatives from developing countries.

[9] See www.csdngo.org/csdngo

[10] Church (2001)

[11] Reinicke et al. (2000) talk about the "operational and participatory gaps in governance" that Global Public Policy Networks (in many ways similar to MSPs) can fill.

[12] UNED Forum is such an organisation, operating domestically within the UK (as UNED-UK) and internationally. It has a UK-based multi-stakeholder Executive Committee, with members being elected or appointed within their sector and term limits; and a (growing) International Advisory Board with representatives of the key organisations from all sectors, aiming at regional and sectoral balance and with newly introduced gender balance requirements.

[13] See, for example, Hohnen: Greenpeace and the Financial Sector, p15.

[14] Standard social 'high impact categories' are gender, ethnic group membership, age. For MSPs in the area of sustainable development, 'high impact categories' are all Major Groups as of Agenda 21. However, depending on the issue, some Major Groups need to be differentiated into several high impact categories such as, in some cases, development and environment NGOs, developing vs. developed country NGOs, etc.

[15] Research on gender has shown that the critical level lies at about 15 – 20 %.

[16] For example it makes no sense to label a young woman from Zimbabwe who is working with an environmental NGO as a representative of women, youth, developing countries, and environmental NGOs. Expecting such representation and differentiation is, quite simply, ridiculous.

[17] Eden & Ackermann (1998), for example, have been developing the technique and suitable software for mapping procedures and work on the basis of 20 years of research and practical experiences. The authors use mapping procedures for organisational strategy development. For example, they conduct interviews with all executive members before a strategic board meeting. These are then translated into individual maps (and checked back) and meta-maps. Both become the basis of the strategy discussions amongst the board. It is interesting to see how many differences in board members views of the overall purpose of a company and suitable strategies to pursue them, can be uncovered through this technique, for the benefit of well-informed discussions in the group.

[18] See Markowitz (2000) for a detailed description and examples of creating community visions in Local Environmental Action Programs in Central and Eastern Europe; see Reinicke et al. (2000, pp65) for examples at the global level (World Commission on Dams; Global Water Partnership).

[19] see, for example, Knowledge Transform (2000), Mathews (2000), Whiffen (2000).

[20] Another example is that, during the preparations for CSD-7 in 1999, NGOs experienced in the CSD provided training for the industry representatives, the World Travel and Tourism Council, in order to ensure a level playing field.

[21] For example, this has worked well in the Brent Spar process.

[22] This has been asserted for the World Commission on Dams, with regard to meetings of the Global Compact and the UN CSD, among others. It is important to keep in mind that charisma – a concept very difficult to define – is partly made up of high social intelligence and the ability to respond to various social situations in a flexible manner.

[23] Another aspect underlining the importance of balanced group composition

[24] See Markowitz (2000: 155) for a brief and practical analysis of various decision-making rules and their implications for high- and low-stake decisions.

[25] Other techniques aiming to counter premature compromise or agreement are using "devil's advocates"; work parallel in different small groups on the same task; avoid public voting.

[26] For example, at the CSD in 1999, stakeholders were invited to comment on the Secretariat's draft summary of the dialogue sessions over night; at the Bergen Ministerial meeting, stakeholders met late in the evening to discuss a draft of the chair's summary.

[27] A common problem is that when a group reaches a compromise, not everybody will afterwards support it. Quite often, minority members will not support the implementation but rather keep their views – and sometimes even work to undermine successful implementation of a solution, and, after failure, being able to point out that they were "right all along". MSPs – in case they are aiming at working together to implement a solution, not at initial, open dialoguing – need to yield a consensus about a way forward that all involved will be committed to implementing. Given trustworthy, transparent, continuous monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, likelihood for successful implementation is highest or, if the decision was wrong, common learning leading to revisiting the decision, if all involved commit to try what has been decided to be the way forward.

[28] Such political decisions also relate to institutional changes for participation, on which there is little research. Such research is underway, for example at the Institute for Development Studies in Sussex, UK (The Participation Group), and should be considered. It will be important to know more about processes that have supported and enabled the institutionalisation of participatory practice, and there is a need for open spaces for reflection and analysis within organisations seeking to set up participatory mechanisms (such as the United Nations and its agencies; government departments, etc.). – Along the same lines, Reinicke et al. (2000: 116) are suggesting that the UN should set up a clearinghouse to serve as "a centre for knowledge management that assembles and disseminates the lessons learned in the networks around the world".

[29] Meta-communication: [from Greek 'meta' = higher] communication about communication: exchanging information, views, opinions about the way we communicate in a given situation and structure. An important tool in communication processes, particularly in groups of high diversity of language, culture and background (see 6.2. /  Watzlawick's axioms of human communication).

[30] If marketing and PR specialists are able to sell consumers – us! - the second car or fridge and a lot of other things we don't actually need, they should be able to 'sell' sustainable development issues and those of governance.

[31] See Markowitz' (2000) guide to public outreach campaigns as part his "Guide to Implementing Local Environmental Action Programs in Central and Eastern Europe", a detailed and practical resource for stakeholder participation processes at the local level. – A training manual for facilitators will be published in 2001.

[32] A Knowledge Management term describing to people who do similar work but do not necessarily work in the same organisations or sectors.



Contact Minu Hemmati and Felix Dodds for further information.