Main authors: Frode Sundnes, Alma. de Vries, Cors van den Brink
FAIRWAYiS editor: Jane Brandt
Source document: »Sundnes, F. et al. (2021) Multi-actor platforms in the FAIRWAY project: summary of activities and experiences. FAIRWAY Project Deliverable 2.2, 30 pp


Public participation and stakeholder involvement have long been considered central in policy and planning processes (Reed 2008, Lamers, Ottow et al. 2010, Akhmouch and Clavreul 2016). Simpson and Löe (2020) argue that for complex environmental problems, such as groundwater protection, involvement of expert scientist are not enough, and that involvement of affected communities are essential for enabling a lasting solution that also pay respect to local knowledge, beliefs and values. Ideally, by involving a broad set of stakeholders one enlarges the knowledge base of the processes, increasing the ownership to and legitimacy of the outcomes (Lang, Wiek et al. 2012).

Broad participation has therefore increasingly become a prerequisite for decision-making processes, and a requirement of integrated and adaptive governance arrangements (Reed 2008, Lamers, Ottow et al. 2010, Akhmouch and Clavreul 2016). The European Water Framework Directive is a case in point, where the inclusion of interested parties in decision-making processes is a central tenet of river basin planning (WFD 2006), although the exact form of participation required is not given (Newig, Kochskämper et al. 2018). The promotion of stakeholder engagement is also at the core of the OECD water governance principles (OECD 2015).

In our attempt to address the agriculture-drinking water nexus within a multi-actor context, a useful point of departure has been the existing and vast literature on multi-stakeholder approaches and platforms (Steins and Edwards 1996, Warner 2006, Reed 2008, Fish et al. 2010, Heinelt 2012, Lang, Wiek et al. 2012, Graversgaard, Hedelin et al. 2018, Kochskämper, Jager et al. 2018). This literature points out the promises of participatory approaches, but also some of the pitfalls and limitations. Further discussion can be found in other sections of »Multi-actor platforms and in the various scientific publications (Sundnes, van den Brink et al. 2020, Nesheim, Sundnes et al. 2021, van den Brink, Hoogendoorn et al. 2021).

In a project setting, a multi-actor approach is devised to ensure meaningful involvement, with real impacts on the research process and outcomes through co-creation of knowledge and solutions (cf. Ostrom 2010). Such engagement should take place as early as possible in the project cycle; from the planning of work and experiments, their execution and implementation, up until the dissemination of results, and evaluation (Reed 2008). This will facilitate joint knowledge production and interactions between a range of actors, including end-users, in ways that will lead to shared ownership to both process and results (Levidow and Neubauer 2014, Belmans, Campling et al. 2018, Graversgaard, Hedelin et al. 2018).

Inspired by Warner and Verhallen (2012), we have developed a framework fit for multi-actor engagement platforms, highlighting some dimensions that we have considered relevant for assessing strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for change with regards to engagement platforms. These dimensions relate in different ways to the process, the content and the context of engagement processes. Some adjustments have been made in labelling and descriptions. Moreover, Warner and Verhallen suggest that a change towards “improvement” on each dimension is a move towards a more effective multi-stakeholder dialogue. Given the dynamic character of multi-actor processes, and the differences between MAPs in the kind of stakeholders they involve, contextual factors, mandates and governance frameworks, such linear development towards effectiveness cannot be supported. Steins and Edwards consider an engagement platform to be “a negotiating and/or decision-making body (voluntary or statutory), comprising different stakeholders who perceive the same resource management problem, realize their interdependence in solving it, and come together to agree on action strategies for solving the problem” (1996:244). In line with this, we find that a more non-linear understanding of these platforms is necessary, to acknowledge the dynamic character of engagement processes. Our suggested framework is therefore more open-ended in terms of the ideal conditions for engagement. Key factors or dimensions that we consider important in designing well-functioning engagement processes are shown in Figure 2.

D2.2 fig02
Figure 2

  • Arenas involve the range of actors involved from which sectors and at which levels;
  • Adaptivity refers to the capacity of the platform to adapting to changing external circumstance, as well as adapting to the dynamics of the organization, and being flexible to change direction and goals depending on identified needs with the platform;
  • Synergies in a platform ranges from a focus on each stakeholder’s own interests (with no synergies), to a more joint effort to find solutions and innovations that bridges these different interests, as well as bringing in additional social learning outcomes;
  • Shared goals refer to whether there is a shared understanding of the urgency and the nature of the problem, and consequently whether there is a goal that is shared by all parties and that everyone can rally behind and work towards;
  • Power balance is here understood as whether within the engagement platform there are one or more actors that dominate discussions, decision-making and agenda-setting, or whether there is a more level playing field.;
  • Decision space refers to the kinds of mandate and legitimacy a platform has, ranging from a small/narrow mandate, e.g. as a consultative body, or a broader mandate when influencing decision-making processes. This could refer to both internal mandate (constituency to representatives) and external mandate (enabling environment) (Warner and Verhallen 2012);
  • Available resources refer to the extent to which the platform is seen as having resources with regards to institutional support, funding and manpower, whether the structure set up with the voluntary contribution from all actor groups, or the platforms take the form of a network with a staffed secretariat or the like. Available internal resources may refer to different kinds of public, legal or financial support, while external resources on the other hand may be outside legitimacy of the platform with regards to the problem at hand. Finally,
  • Trust is presented as a factor cutting across all dimensions, and refers in this context to a broad understanding of trust between actors, both encompassing relational trust (between oneself and the other) and calculative trust (relating to perceptions of past behaviour of the other and/or on constraints on future behaviour) (cf. Earle 2010).

The dimensions of multi-actor-engagement is returned to in our discussion of »Changes over time.


Note: For full references to papers quoted in this article see



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