Reclaiming the Multistakeholder Approach

Annenberg School for Communication PhD student Katerina Girginova discusses the origin and usage of the term multistakeholderism, as well as how the term could be reclaimed.

Multistakeholderism has become a staple concept in internet policy discourse. Too often, however, it is uncritically applied, which either leads to its ineffective adoption or to its outright dismissal. This blog argues that in both cases multistakeholderism is used as an oversimplified heuristic, which has become descriptive in nature rather than analytical. In an attempt to reclaim multistakeholderism as a critical and practical tool, this blog first explores the origins and evolution of the concept, paying close attention to its normative assumptions and promises. It then teases out a suggestion for how the idea of multistakeholders can be applied inquisitively rather than descriptively in policy contexts.


When did the term originate?

Multistakeholderism is the grandchild of stakeholder theory, or stakeholderism. Briefly, a stakeholder is “any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the firm’s objectives (Freeman, 1984, p. 25).” Stakeholderism has its roots embedded in an industrial core; one of the first international bodies “to recognize the role of relevant stakeholders was the International Labor Organization (ILO), which in 1919 set a model for tripartite representation from governments, employers and unions (Hemmati, 2002, p. 36).” Similarly, some of the earliest academic works mentioning stakeholders emanate from management and organizational studies literature (Freeman, 1984). In this conception of the firm, an organization is seen as the center of the stakeholder relationship and relevant others (stakeholders) are identified as having some impact on the organizations’ successful functioning.

The younger concept of multistakeholders or multistakeholderism differs fundamentally from stakeholderism in that it implies, at least in theory, an equitable relationship between the various stakeholders. It refers more to a network of stakeholders versus a nexus by recognizing the validity and importance of multiple actors, their desires, and their contributions. This equitability of voice and influence can purportedly be achieved because multistakeholderism is based around issues rather than organizations; “in the context of multistakeholder networks a stakeholder is any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the approach to the issue addressed by the network (Roloff, 2008, p. 238).” Thus, and we must highlight again that this is the theoretical version of multistakeholderism, if an issue as opposed to a player becomes the focal point then the decision making power of that one player is diffused amongst the many who have a stake in that issue. Of course, an oft-met criticism for multistakeholderism is that it is frequently taken as a discursive value, without practical outcomes (DeNardis & Raymond, 2013).

A key impetus for the development of multistakeholderism has been the process of globalization and the recognition of broad issues, which require cross-national cooperation. Some of the earliest organizations and contexts for the birth of multi-stakeholder discourse were the United Nations (1945) and the Rio Earth Summit (1992), (Hemmati, 2002). More recently the 2005 Internet Governance Forum in Tunis, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), firmly embedded the concept in the realm of digital discourse (Diplo Foundation, n.d.). Paragraph 34 in the Tunis Agenda solidifies multistakeholderism as a key governance activity of the internet:


  1. A working definition of Internet governance is the development and

application by governments, the private sector and civil society, in their

respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making

procedures, and programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet.


– Tunis Agenda, WSIS Report


Importantly, this paragraph not only adopts a multistakeholder position for internet governance but also shifts the multistakeholder discourse to include non-governmental bodies. As Hintz and Milan (2014) note, “multistakeholder governance has dramatically shifted traditional procedures of intergovernmental politics towards the inclusion of non-state actors,” (n.p.). What this tells us is that multistakeholder and stakeholder discourses evolve and are malleable to further change. Furthermore, it suggests that the concept can be applied analytically to engage any potential party at stake.


The assumptions and promises of multistakeholderism

Whereas the primary goal of stakeholder theory is one of defense and control (an organization must identify its stakeholders in order to protect itself and optimize its business), the primary goal behind multistakeholderism is dialogue and sustainable development (Hemmati, 2002; Roloff, 2008). While stakeholderism focuses on the outcome, multistakeholderism puts the spotlight on the process itself. Therefore, key epistemological and ontological differences exist between the two concepts. Next, we turn to multistakeholderism specifically, to examine some of its assumptions and promises.

It is important to highlight that when we speak of (multi)stakeholder processes, we do not refer to a single concept or approach (Donaldson & Preston, 1995; Hemmati, 2002) but rather to a combination of values and practices. Here are a few of the key, repeating ones. As Hemmati (2002) states, multistakeholderism’s ideological assumptions are based on normative values; they are based on the idea that things ought to be a certain way and, further, that the ways engendered by multistakeholderism are ethical approaches to global, ‘digital issue’ governance.

The specific normative and arguably ethical assumptions of a multistakeholder process include: participation, commitment, equity, justice, unity, diversity, and credibility. Furthermore, secondary outcomes or promises of successful multistakeholder actions can lead to economic success, solidarity, transparency, legitimacy, accountability, responsibility, and learning (Hemmati, 2002), or capacity building (Antonova, 2011).

In sum, multistakeholderism is a framework for governance and refers to a process as well as a set of normative assumptions that carry beneficial promises for those involved. With this definition in mind, we may move away from the descriptive and binary application of multistakeholderism (i.e., this meeting or decision did or did not include multi-stakeholders) toward a more nuanced understanding and application of the concept. For instance, Twitter’s recent decision (Twitter, 2015) to have all its non-American accounts handled by an office in Dublin, Ireland can be read as an attempt to reinforce a multistakeholder relationship with EU online data and privacy regulators. In that sense, the idea of a stakeholder/multistakeholder relationship can be mapped on a continuum, where EU regulators are placed toward the multistakeholder end of the spectrum and given greater ‘issue’ control over Twitter’s governance.

However, this same decision does does not necessarily grant Twitter’s non-US account holders much more direct control over their data or its governance processes. Thus, in this same policy change, the user may be categorized as being located toward the stakeholder end of the relationship continuum. Of course, this same process can be repeated for all current and potential Twitter organization stakeholders and it may be performed in a more fine-grained manner. This way, a more accurate and rich picture of the state and potential for multistakeholderism may be obtained.

By reverse-engineering the multistakeholder discourse from a singular label to a set of criteria, questions, or processes, we may identify cases where some form of a multistakeholder relationship is implied and examine the degree to which it met the term’s embedded normative assumptions and promises. This would allow for a clearer understanding of exactly where a policy or decision may have fallen short of its multistakeholder potential. Such an approach ought to help reclaim the concept of multistakeholderism in a way that regains its inherent, critical agency and allows the concept to become a useful part of a researcher’s analytical toolkit.



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