Stakeholders in government and democracy

Stuart Weir & Andrew Blick (Cambridge & London, Democratic Audit): Who and what are 'stakeholders'? Public bodies and consultants fall over each other to assert that they take into account the views of stakeholders and consult thoroughly with them over policy and its implementation. At first glance this approach might seem a hallmark of open, consultative government. Surely those most involved in a particular area have the knowledge that is needed and should have a say in decisions likely to impact directly upon them? Up to a point, yes. But there are problems with the growing emergence of 'stakeholder-ocracy' that seems to be developing.

First, in a democracy, everyone should have an equal opportunity to participate and to have their views taken seriously, regardless of whether or not they are deemed a stakeholder. Second, there are difficulties of definition. There is no clearly set out view of what a stakeholder is, how someone or something gets deemed to be one, and what entitlements this status entails. Because of this fuzziness those who do the consulting are able to exercise much discretion over who (and who not) to consult, over what and in what fashion, and even to disguise who gets that exalted status. And as we have recently discovered we are not even allowed to know who all the stakeholders are. Democratic Audit is currently appealing against a decision not to release under the Freedom of Information Act details of the stakeholders for departments who were consulted as part of the Cabinet Office Capability Reviews of departments. Given this reticence, 'stakeholders' increasingly come to resemble the closed policy circles of the great and good of old - at least we usually knew who they were.