Working with stakeholders: How to get access to the field


by Kerstin Huelemeyer, Institut für Ländliche Strukturforschung (IfLS, Germany)

To be honest: What's in it for us? We have been researched last year by another research project; I as the initiative’s secretary had to fill out hundreds of questions, work hard to resemble all information they asked for, and haven’t heard anything since.

Wow. This was the first reaction of the secretary of a German initiative for traditional orchard cultivation – tough start for trying to get this initiative to work with us in PEGASUS as a case study. And I think, this is the downside of the actually positive fact that interaction with stakeholders is now often called for in Horizon 2020 and other research funding programmes. Researchers can easily burn the ground for future research with practitioners: if you hold a workshop with different stakeholders and don’t facilitate it well, you may stimulate conflicts among different groups; if you go into the field and think you already know it all, stakeholders note down that researchers are arrogant and will not open up; and, as we see here, if people devote their time to you and you never get back to them, the chances decrease considerably that they will do it again.


Coming back to the woman I am just talking to on the phone and her question. What's in it for stakeholders? Well yes, that can be a tricky question. And I know, it is more than giving a good answer: I need to be personally convincing, because it all depends on this first call if we will be able to work with them or not. To be upfront with it, this initiative ultimately became one of our PEGASUS case studies. And here I tell you how.


Explain in simple words what you do 

The acronym PEGASUS (Public Ecosystem Goods And Services from land management – Unlocking the Synergies) doesn’t even translate well into German, and the message the project title tries to get across -  that we look at the concepts of public goods and ecosystem services in a different way - simply sounds as if somebody didn’t pay enough attention while translating it. Besides, can I really convince people to work with us by explaining the theoretical background our consortium has put a lot of effort in? Instead, I started by explaining what we do in PEGASUS and what our objectives are: we know that agriculture and forestry produce more than food, fodder and timber, and that those activities can also deliver a broad set of environmental and social benefits to society. In PEGASUS, we want to analyse how new forms of land management can help stimulating or at least maintaining the provision of these benefits. We want to know what the challenges and barriers are to this improvement, as well as the supporting factors. Also, PEGASUS aims to ensure that land managers learn from each other to be able to promote better what they do.


The secretary of the initiative stays on the phone, so it seems I haven’t put her off so far. Maybe she feels that I believe in the PEGASUS approach and that we may really have something to offer that will benefit them.

Judge realistically the role you can play for them

Though it is tempting to think so, most of the time researchers (like me) are not perceived by stakeholders as saviours. Still there is a lot I can offer this time: in PEGASUS we have agreed to implement action-oriented research, which means there are resources to work with the people on a question or burning issue they have themselves, and then, following our own research agenda, meta-analyse the processes and interactions as well as the framework conditions in which they happen. So here we are and during our talk it turns out that the initiative has recently been faced with a difficult issue: this traditional orchards project heavily depends on voluntary work, and volunteers are either aging or are workers who are not able to carry on with this side activity. They have been thinking about setting up a project group for exploring the future of the initiative, but didn’t have anybody who would be able to initiate and run such a process.


What a brilliant opportunity for us to come in, I think. 

Listen to stakeholders

We continue talking and I get a lot of information about the history of the initiative (one of the first surcharge initiatives for orchard meadows in Germany, which is by the way one of the reasons we have selected this initiative), the current set-up of the initiative and the problems of the secretary as well as the challenges of orchard cultivation. As we speak, it becomes obvious that there is a broad set of factors which will be relevant for the future of the initiative, and that there are a number of players in the field who need to get involved. There seems to be differences between the secretary and the executive board; the initiative covers a broad territory and most of the members don’t even know each other; there are networks which are not working anymore and initiatives which might be relevant for networking in the future. There are funding programmes which haven’t been checked out as they were perceived as too complex etc. While we slowly unveil all these issues, the secretary seems to become more relaxed, opens up and obviously starts to trust us and the benefit our work might have for them. In the end we agree that we will set up together a project group on the future of the initiative and that we will facilitate and manage the whole process.

Perfect for PEGASUS

After the call is finished I am euphoric. Not only that we now have an initiative to work with, it is perfect for PEGASUS. We have an example of a collective action, which has been started with a lot of enthusiasm and now, after 25 years, is facing the problem of finding successors who will continue the work – which is probably an issue for a lot of brilliant initiatives which have been set up on the shoulders of one or two engaged people. And, interestingly, while the environmental beneficial outcomes of traditional orchards have been the motivation for starting the initiative, the social benefits have not been recognised so far. Great, there is so much interesting stuff in there – I am looking forward to start working.


As I am writing these lines, we already had the first workshop with them. It lived up to my expectations and brought already good results. But that will be the content of another article. Meanwhile, you can consult the results of the 34 PEGASUS case studies are available here.