Be more inclusive now: Steps to bring more stakeholders to the table in fragile states

Political inclusivity is the theme of the moment. We’ve seen it driving populist movements from the Philippines to the United States; underlying the “Brexit” debacle in the United Kingdom; and weaving through the UN’s recent reviews of its peacekeeping and peacebuilding work.

But what does it mean for peacekeepers and development specialists that have grown up in a government-to-government world? As expectations steadily grow for involvement of non-elite stakeholders, how do managers need to adapt programme approaches, systems and processes, and organisational culture?

Well—remember when it finally came to be recognised that women’s perspectives were grossly grossly under-recognised in the development sector?

There followed a raft of measures to ensure that women were either included in decision-making, or their views properly represented. In some development agencies these rules were literally called “safeguards”, because old-fashioned management practices simply couldn’t be permitted to survive. It became normal practice to ask programme managers to explain how women were directly or indirectly included in decision-making.

In this piece I set out how to “health-check”, in the same way, how you are doing with respect to other marginalised groups. That might include ethnic or religious minorities, deep rural areas, or the urban poor. Whichever it is, functional managers should be able to explain:

  • What the decision-making process looks like;
  • Who are the priority stakeholder groups for involvement;
  • How their involvement will influence decision-making.

#1: What decisions are we talking about?

National policy is a product of evolution, not intelligent design. It comprises an array of inherited priorities that are balanced year-to-year through good political judgment, not somehow optimised through mathematical analysis.

The consequence follows: It’s both difficult and not terribly useful to generalise about “inclusivity”. Policy decisions happen at different rhythms in different sectors; they come at different times, at different scale, and with different constellations of stakeholders.

Against this, it’s much easier to map out the “policy pathways” at a sectoral level, or better yet for specific initiatives. Any halfway competent analyst can map the process that leads up to a budget, a five-year strategy, or a capital investment plan.

In bigger organisations, this means that there are usually multiple tracks to keep in mind at any one time. For one international mission I worked with this included justice reform, security sector, protection of civilians, an initiative for national dialogue, local governance, and a range of other issues. Each domain had its own set of Government strategic plans; a range of interested stakeholders; and its own history of opaque and confusing policy.

In such a context, it was pointless to set a one-size-fits-all approach to reach decisions. The role of leadership was rather to set the expectation that non-elite interlocutors would get a greater say. It was then down to division managers to map out the entry points for this to happen.

#2: Who’s in and who’s out?

Stakeholder analysis is akin to unpacking a Russian doll: there are always demographics within demographics within demographics. When you add in high political stakes, these differences are invariably accompanied by disputes over who has the right to speak for whom.

In fact, such dynamics are often critical in the aftermath of crisis. In Follies in Fragile States, I argued at length that “the state had failed in different ways for different people”. It was impossible to get anywhere on issues like security sector reform without addressing the reality that people felt like their voices were not heard, and their interests not protected.

All this to say – it’s essential to have a solid process to identify your high-priority interlocutors. At its core this is going to look a lot like an interest/influence diagram:

160727 power-interest

In general your top priority for “inclusivity” is at top right – stakeholders that are very much affected by policy decisions, but have little access. Your second priority is at bottom right, because what seems like minimal interests to you might be pretty damn significant to them.

Your first port of call, meanwhile, is probably at top left. These are people who have vested interests in preserving control over decision-making, and it is critical to feel out how they might be eased into a more inclusive model.

#3: How will “inclusion” affect the decision process? 

When Lyndon Johnson introduced the Great Society in 1960s America, it meant a lot of policy initiatives for historically marginal social groups. Many of these programs were rather ill-informed, and some were shockingly patronising.

Sherry Arnstein, a civil servant at the Department of Housing, Education and Welfare came up with the ladder of participation to capture this experience. This had eight rungs reaching from “manipulation” at the bottom, through “informing” and “consulting”, to “citizen control” right at the top. The point was that targeted populations could be involved in different ways, and to wildly different extents, in initiatives conceived for their benefit.

Once you’ve mapped out your target stakeholders, you need to match them against this sort of framework. This is sometimes called participation planning. Effectively this means taking stakeholder groups one by one, and reviewing how they’re involved at key points in the decision pathway.

What opportunities are there to share information? When can you fit in formal consultations? Is it possible to have formal representation (even if only as observers) in decision-making forums?

In my experience, a plan along these lines can be captured in five pages. And it’s at least as important an annex to your strategy document as the budget and monitoring & evaluation framework.

Start asking questions

Inclusivity is not a yes/no proposition. It’s a subjective criterion of quality, against which one tries to do better over time. The key to generating momentum is to implant firmly into hearts and minds that this is part of what good management looks like.

The best way to do that is via follow-up—asking the right questions, and asking them regularly. Don’t be vague when you can be specific. Don’t be defensive about the role of the 1%, when you can be proactive to do more.