Approaches to identifying stakeholders in environmental management

Published 25 Feb 2016 by Bec Colvin, Student Member

For environmental practitioners, analysing and engaging with stakeholders is a significant component of environmental management. From a pragmatic perspective, engaging stakeholders can lead to ‘buy in’ and support for projects. Ethically, involving people in the decisions which affect them is viewed a moral good, and a principle of sustainable development. 

An important early step is stakeholder identification. Getting the ‘right’ complement of stakeholders is known to be critical for successful outcomes for the project - and for stakeholders. Criteria for identification generally include all those who can affect or may be affected by the project. However, due to the interconnectedness of environmental systems, identification of stakeholders can find a practitioner needing to sift through all of society to determine who should be engaged. 

Recently, my colleagues and I undertook research on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of environmental stakeholder identification. To answer our questions, we looked to the experts and interviewed 20 environmental practitioners who provided their insights from over 300 collective years of experience in the field.

The findings were illuminating. The participants were grouped into two broad domains of environmental projects. Land use change projects were characterised by larger geographic and socio-political scales, often accompanied by conflict. These projects viewed community as a special type of stakeholder with place-based interests. Agricultural extension and community engagement projects tended to be smaller in geographic scale, often involved incremental changes with more collegial relationships with stakeholders, and viewed community as the social milieu within which stakeholders resided. 

Approach to stakeholder identification    
Science Seeking Key informants and snowballing Utilise knowledge and networks of stakeholders.
    Use of media Use of a range of media to find evidence of stakeholders.
  Creating Geographical footprint Determine geographical scope of issue as stakeholder catchment.
    Interests Analysis of interests triggered by issue to identify corresponding stakeholders.
    Influence Analysis of those with power to influence issue and other stakeholders.
Art   Intuition The use of tacit skills and understanding to identify stakeholders
    Past experiences Reflection on past experience to inform identification of stakeholders
Phenomenon   Stakeholder self-selection Stakeholders approach practitioner for engagement in issue.

Eight approaches to identification of stakeholders were described across the interviews with practitioners (see table above). We categorised these as the art (practitioners’ professional idiosyncrasies) and science (more formalised processes) of stakeholder identification, along with the phenomenon of stakeholder self-selection. For the science of stakeholder identification, we also viewed the approaches as including those which seek stakeholders through looking for who is already present, and those which create the contingent of stakeholders by applying boundaries or rules to the project scope. In general, a suite of complementary approaches to stakeholder identification would be used together for a project. 

We consider the concept stakeholder status helpful in describing the recognition of stakeholders through identification processes. This highlights the privileged position of the practitioner, in that it is the evaluation by the practitioner of who achieves stakeholder status which determines who has a voice in the project. We feel this emphasises the importance of ongoing self-reflection, diligence, and conscientiousness for those of us who hold that position of privilege.

If you would like to know more about the study, or are interested in reading the research paper in full, please email Bec Colvin (School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, The University of Queensland) at r.colvin2@uq.edu.au


Colvin, RM, Witt, GB & Lacey, J 2016, 'Approaches to identifying stakeholders in environmental management: Insights from practitioners to go beyond the ‘usual suspects’', Land Use Policy, vol. 52, pp. 266–276. Available online: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0264837715004275