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How to set up a stakeholder advisory panel for your research project (and why it delivers impact)

Updated: Feb 21, 2020

Most of us have left the idea of one-way "knowledge transfer" behind us long ago, but we rarely interrogate the ethics or evidence behind more two-way models of "knowledge exchange". In this guide, I want to look at the ethics of generating knowledge in dialogue with those who might benefit from our work, explore the evidence behind stakeholder advisory panels and explain how you can set one up for your next research project.

Advisory panel for Bowel Cancer UK via @Lisa_Wilde

Listening for impact

There are an under-explored set of values that are implicit in any attempt to generate impact with rather than for people. Genuine two-way dialogue requires listening, and listening requires mutual respect. To learn from what you hear requires humility, especially when what you hear challenges your assumptions.

From a place of humility, we no longer regard ourselves as the sole authority on the matter, and are open to the possibility that we might be able to learn something from people with very different backgrounds and types of knowledge to us. If we see the world in black and white terms, where the role of researchers is to discover universal truth, then there is little point in engaging with other researchers in debate, let alone stakeholders and publics.

If on the other hand, we see the world in shades of grey, then it becomes possible to accept that there may be multiple options rather than a single solution, and multiple ways of seeing things rather than a single preferred interpretation. Decisions in this “shades of grey” world are as likely to be informed by lines or argument and moral reasoning as they are by formal evidence from research. Taking this approach, listening to perspectives from stakeholders and publics becomes a worthwhile endeavour, and we become able to engage in meaningful dialogue, rather than just communicating or disseminating our research.

What works in practice?

In 2011, Jeremy Philipson and colleagues reviewed seven commonly used knowledge exchange mechanisms and found that participating in events was most likely to be associated with benefits for policy and practice (91% research projects reported impacts arising from event participation). However, these benefits were typically one-way, with limited two-way benefits reported for the research.

In contrast, they found that engaging more deeply with stakeholders as project partners or via advisory panels was more likely to generate win-wins for both researchers and stakeholders. Projects engaging with stakeholder as project partners or via advisory panels were perceived to improve research quality (100% and 87% researchers perceived a positive effect from project partners and advisory panels respectively) and relevance (100% and 95% respectively), as well as impacting positively on stakeholder knowledge (81% and 93% respectively), and policies or practices (77% and 64% respectively). Two-way engagement works.

I have used stakeholder advisory panels in most of the projects I have led, and have found them invaluable. With help from members of advisory panels, I have found new and better pathways to impact, that would otherwise not have been available to me. They have helped with the research, providing me with new insights and interpretations, access to data and new funding opportunities. In some of my social science, I have also been able to use the panel as a focus group to triangulate and increase the robustness of my findings. In other cases I have been able to identify marginalised groups with similar interests to more powerful groups, and use the advisory panel as an opportunity to foster strategic alliances that empower the marginalised. In the rest of this blog, I want to tell you how you can set one up for yourself.

How to set up your own advisory panel

This is how you can set up a stakeholder advisory panel for your research project:

  • Scope out who should be on your panel: do a public/stakeholder analysis to work out who you want to invite to join your panel. There is no single correct way to use the findings of your analysis. You may want to prioritise those who will benefit most or who have greatest influence to help you achieve impact. However, you may also want to ensure you represent hard-to-reach groups and give voice to marginalised groups who may have alternative and valuable perspectives to offer

  • Choose a chair person: many researchers simply give the chair to the Principal Investigator on the project, however this can be problematic as the researcher on the project is not independent and is less likely to be held to account by the group. Finding a well respected and competent, independent chair can empower stakeholders to ask probing questions and genuinely shape the research. Giving the chair role to someone also frees up the researcher leading the project to genuinely listen and respond to feedback (and many experienced chairs are better at the job of chairing than the project leader would have been). The chair needs to be well respected by everyone on the panel and so will typically be chosen from outside academia, but you may be able to find a highly engaged researcher who is well known in the stakeholder community who can perform the role effectively

  • Further scope panel remit and membership: conduct a small number of informal scoping interviews with your chair (giving them some joint ownership of the process) and key stakeholders to check that there’s no-one important missing from your invitation list. During these conversations, you can also discuss the role that the group is going to perform for your project, and find out whether you need to offer a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) to enable everyone to speak freely during meetings (typically for panels involving stakeholders from industry or on highly controversial topics). If you need an NDA, speak to the legal team in your institution to get something drawn up

  • Keep numbers manageable: for a stakeholder advisory panel to operate efficiently and enable genuine discussion, you should aim for somewhere around 8-12 members. If you have over 20 members, meetings will become difficult to manage and there may not be time for everyone to express their views and share their knowledge. If there are compelling (e.g. political) reasons why you need to engage with a large group intensively and regularly throughout your project, consider supplementing your advisory panel with a wider “reference group” (of any size). Reference group members get regular updates via email (in addition to any wider newsletter you might publish), giving them privileged access to your work and the opportunity to input via email and one-to-one calls as necessary. This avoids key groups feeling excluded whilst retaining a manageable size of advisory panel

  • Invite members: turn your research proposal into a project flyer using plain language and emphasising the impacts you hope to achieve, and send this along with your invitations. Tailor your invitation to the interests of different groups based on your public/stakeholder analysis, emphasing the aspects of the research you think are likely to be of greatest interest to them. An additional step after this for some projects is to issue non-disclosure agreements in advance of the initial meeting so everyone has time to scrutinise and sign the agreement ready for the first meeting

  • Hold your first meeting: make sure you cover the following points in your first meeting…

  • Make time for introductions, giving everyone as much time as the research team to introduce their interests and expertise to the rest of the group

  • Explain your research in plain language, providing ample time for questions and discussion

  • Agree your Terms of Reference for the group: ideally come prepared with a draft and send this in advance as one of the papers for the meeting. You can view an example Terms of Reference for an advisory panel below

  • Manage expectations: although you are providing panel members with an opportunity to advise and shape your research, there will be limits to how much you can adapt your plans, and people need to know this

  • Provide networking opportunities: if you did you public/stakeholder analysis well, you should have identified people from different backgrounds who share similar interests, and one of the things they will benefit most from initially is the opportunity to network and learn from others in the meeting. Therefore, make sure you provide plenty of time for breaks, and consider if you can provide a lunch before or after the event to provide people with more protracted opportunities for engagement

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