Step 4. Engaging stakeholders

“If you want to go quickly, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

– African proverb

What outputs should be delivered from this step?

A stakeholder engagement plan indicating who, when and how to involve stakeholders throughout the MSP process.


Engaging key stakeholders in the development of marine spatial planning (MSP) is essential for a number of reasons. Of these, the most important is because MSP aims to achieve multiple objectives (social, economic and ecological) and should therefore reflect as many expectations, opportunities or conflicts occurring in the MSP area. The Box below lists some other reasons why engaging stakeholders in your MSP initiative is important.The scope and extent of stakeholder engagement differs greatly from country to country and is often culturally and politically influenced. The level of stakeholder engagement will largely depend on the political or legal requirements for participation that already exist in your country.

DEFINITIONStakeholders are individuals, groups, or organisations that are (or will be) affected, involved or interested (positively or negatively) by MSP management actions in various ways.

Generally speaking, all individuals, groups or organisations that are in one way or another affected, involved or interested in MSP can be considered “stakeholders”. However, engaging too many stakeholders at the wrong moment or in the wrong form can be very time consuming and can distract you from the expected or anticipated outcomes of MSP. To involve stakeholders effectively (e.g., delivering expected outcomes) and efficiently (e.g., producing expected results at least-cost), you need to consider three important questions:

  • Who should be involved?
  • When should stakeholders be involved?
  • How should stakeholders be involved?

Each of these questions is discussed in more detail in this step.


Who, when and how stakeholders are engaged in your MSP initiative will ultimately be closely linked and influenced by two questions:

  • Who decides what during planning and implementing steps of the MSP process? and;
  • Who is ultimately responsible for MSP planning and development?

For example, there might already be a legal obligation to share decision-making about long-term offshore investments with certain stakeholders or groups of stakeholders (e.g., indigenous people) or there might be a legal obligation to consult the general public about the spatial plan prior to its implementation.

Where no legal obligations exist, it is important to define what type of stakeholder engagement will be most suitable for a successful result. For instance, engaging indigenous people in your MSP efforts may not be a legal requirement, but they could however be greatly affected (positively or negatively) by your MSP management actions, and should therefore participate in the MSP process.

Reasons to involve stakeholders in MSP

  • To encourage ownership” of the spatial planning process and final plan, engender trust among stakeholders and decision-makers, and encourage voluntary compliance with rules and regulations;
  • To gain a better understanding of the complexity (spatial, temporal, and other) of the marine management area;
  • To gain a better understanding of the human influences on the marine management area;
  • To deepen mutual and shared understanding about the problems and challenges in the marine management area;
  • To gain a better understanding of underlying (often sector-oriented) desires, perceptions and interests that stimulate and/or prohibit integration of policies in the marine management area;
  • To examine existing and potential compatibility and/or conflicts of multiple use objectives of the marine management area;
  • To generate new options and solutions that may not have been identified in single-sector planning; and
  • To expand and diversify the capacity of the marine planning team, in particular through the inclusion of secondary and tertiary information, for example, local knowledge and traditions.


First of all, an important task is identifying the key stakeholders that should be engaged in your MSP efforts. Depending on their interests, their ways of perceiving problems and opportunities concerning the MSP area and its resources, there are often many different stakeholders. Individuals, groups or organisations that should be considered for engagement in MSP include those that:

  • Are or will be affected by MSP decisions;
  • Are dependent on the resources of the marine management area where MSP decisions will be taken;
  • Have or make legal claims or obligations over areas or resources within the marine management area;
  • Conduct activities that impact on areas or resources of the marine management area;
  • Have special seasonal or geographic interests in the marine management area; and
  • Have a special interest in the management of the area (such as environmental NGOs and cultural advocacy groups).

Not all stakeholders are necessarily equally important or relevant where MSP is concerned. On a scale of importance, you might want to give some stakeholders more weight than others. The Box below contains a list with possible criteria that can assist you in distinguishing stakeholders that could be more relevant for your needs than others. Stakeholders that correspond to several of these criteria could very well be considered stakeholders of ‘primary’ importance, whereas those that do so less favorably could be considered ‘secondary’, or ‘tertiary’ stakeholders.

Criteria to assess the importance or relevance of stakeholders in MSP

  • Existing rights to the resources in the management area;
  • Continuity of relationship to the resources (e.g. resident resource users versus migratory users) in the management area;
  • Unique knowledge and skills for the spatial management of the resources in the management area;
  • Level of losses and damage incurred during or after the MSP process;
  • Historical and cultural relations to the resources in the management area;
  • Degree of economic and social reliance on the resources of the management area;
  • Degree of effort and interest in the management of the management area;
  • Equity in the access to resources of the management area and the distribution of benefits from their use;
  • Compatibility of the interests and activities of the stakeholders; and
  • Present or potential future impact of activities of stakeholders on the management area.

Be sure, however, that you engage a final group of stakeholders that is well balanced (namely one that reflects the social/cultural, economic and ecological interests in the marine management area) and that you address the issue of entitlement to participate. Some stakeholders often hold considerable political and/or economic influence over particular areas or resources based on their historical dependence and association, institutional mandate, economic interest, or various other concerns. In some cases, you may need to form sub-groups, for example, small-scale near shore fisheries versus large scale, industrial and spatially-flexible fisheries, to reflect your particular situation more accurately.

One practical way to assess stakeholders is through “stakeholder analysis”. Stakeholder analysis can assist, for example, in identifying who is likely to be supportive or potentially hostile to MSP. It can also provide insight in the interrelationships, current and (potential) future interests and expectations of certain stakeholders and examine the question of how and to what extent they represent various segments of society. You might also encounter stakeholder groups that do not have sufficient means, skills or knowledge to participate and represent their stake in the MSP initiative. If so, you could consider undertaking (or stimulating others to do so) efforts toward empowering such stakeholder groups to enhance their participation. The Box below lists some examples of activities that can be considered toward this end.

Possible ways to empower stakeholders

Stakeholder empowerment will be most successful when your efforts start early on and continue throughout all subsequent steps of the MSP process. Possible ways to empower stakeholders include:

  • Distributing information to raise awareness of the possibility of participating in MSP efforts;
  • Workshops for local communities to support understanding about MSP and the effects (positive and negative) it may have on certain stakeholder groups;
  • Training sessions for certain stakeholder groups (e.g., small-scale fishing activities of indigenous people) to support the collection of necessary spatial data related to their activities so that they will be able to take a position when discussing alternative MSP management actions;
  • Education initiatives for stakeholder groups to develop and improve much needed negotiation skills; and
  • Financial support for professional negotiators who can assist in developing a position for the stakeholder group by actively helping to defend discussions concerning MSP goals, objectives and management actions.


Secondly, you will need to define when stakeholders should be involved during appropriate steps of the MSP process. Ideally, stakeholder engagement in MSP is accomplished early, often and in a sustained manner throughout the process. A number of fora might already exist that allow stakeholders to participate in the planning and management of the marine area. You will need to decide whether you can use these existing fora or you need new ones for the participation of stakeholders in your MSP efforts.

Not all stakeholders need to be involved all of the time. Different stakeholder groups, with varying levels of interest and entitlement, can take part in different steps of the MSP process. The most important steps when you should consider stakeholder participation include:

1. Pre-planning and planning for MSP

During the pre-planning and planning phases of MSP (see Step 3, Organizing the process through pre-planningStep 5, Analyzing existing conditions, and Step 6, Analyzing future conditions), you will benefit from engaging as many stakeholders as possible. This will allow you to collect information on a wide range of expectations, opportunities and conflicts that take place in the management area.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts (USA), for example, organised 18 public hearings during which it consulted a broad range of stakeholders. The hearings were essentially open to all who were interested. The information derived from these hearings provided a broad basis for identifying the goals and objectives of its MSP initiative.

More recently, stakeholder and public engagement were cornerstones of the regional ocean planning processes in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions of the USA, including decision making meetings open to the public, stakeholder outreach events, workshops, public webinars, and public listening sessions. Websites and social media were used extensively throughout the MSP process in both regions.

Generally, the greater the participation in the process of setting goals and objectives, the greater the stakeholder acceptance and legitimacy of the MSP plan is likely to be. The outcomes of the participation process should be made available to the stakeholders who should then also have a chance to review and verify the outcomes (or parts of it) of their participation.

For a good example of a stakeholder engagement plan developed by England’s Marine Management Organisation, click here.

2. MSP plan development

A core group of stakeholders should be engaged in the analysis and selection of the plan alternatives and the consequences of different alternatives on areas of their interest (see Step 7, Developing the plan).

In almost all cases a draft MSP plan is made available for public consultation. The general public is invited to comment on proposed spatial management actions. Typically this period takes about three to six months and, in some cases, up to a year.


Communicating the results of stakeholder participation to the people who were involved is an important, though often neglected, step. Communication or dialog must be regular and continuous if you are to gain and keep the trust and interest of stakeholders during the MSP process.


3. MSP plan implementation

Engaging stakeholders in the implementation of MSP management actions can be rewarding as well (see Step 8, Implementing the plan). When stakeholders understand the benefits of taking action, and agree upon the management actions to be implemented, it is more likely they will take part in enforcing them too, at least to the extent of encouraging compliance.

4. Monitoring and evaluating MSP performance

Stakeholders should also be involved in evaluating the overall performance in achieving the goals and objectives of MSP plans and management actions (see Step 9, Evaluating performance).

Stakeholder participation during MSP plan evaluation should focus on analyzing results and outcomes and determining the level of achievement of objectives, as well as the effects of the plan itself.

The MSP plan for the Great Barrier Reef (Australia), for example, was evaluated and adapted from 1998 to 2003. This was a formal process guided by specific legislative requirements including public participation. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority organised several formal opportunities for the general public to provide written comments, initially prior to the development of the draft re-zoning plan and subsequently commenting on the draft plan. Over these two phases, the Authority received 31,500 written public submissions that led to substantial changes to the final zoning plan compared to the draft plan.


It is quite common for decision-makers to announce stakeholder engagement forms that indicate a potentially high level of influence for participation to describe practices that, in reality, are very limited. This practice causes frustration among stakeholders and often prohibits effective and manageable stakeholder participation. So be clear from the beginning of the process what stakeholders can expect from their participation



In addition to defining who should be involved and when, you will also need to identify how you will involve stakeholders during your MSP initiative. There are many different ways to involve stakeholders, ranging from ‘communication’ with no real participation, to ‘negotiation’ where decision-making power is shared among stakeholders. The Figure and Box below give an overview of some possible ways to involve stakeholders during the MSP process.

Different ways of incorporating stakeholders in MSP

  • Communication: Authorities responsible for MSP want to convey a message to a target audience and obtain approval for what their message asserts, suggests, and decides. Communication does not involve the stakeholders in any active way;
  • Information: Authorities responsible for MSP want to keep a target audience informed about their intentions, decisions and attempts to provide a basis of understanding, but don’t expect any particular reaction. Unlike communication, the information is intended to be objective and represents a way to empower stakeholders to react to decisions or take a position with full knowledge of the facts;
  • Consultation: Authorities responsible for MSP collect the opinions of stakeholders you have consulted with no guarantee that the opinions expressed will be taken into account;
  • Dialogue: A form of ‘horizontal’ interaction among stakeholders who are positioned as equals. There is no precise purpose other than to know and understand one another better. Dialogue is intended to create a sense of proximity and mutual understanding about the problems and solutions for a particular MSP area;
  • Concertation: A form of ‘horizontal’ interaction among stakeholders that are positioned as equals. Unlike dialogue, the purpose is to develop a common position among a group of stakeholders that can be presented or defended before the authorities responsible for MSP. (“Concertation” is a French term referring to musicians playing an instrument with the purpose of creating a common outcome, e.g., a concert); and
  • Negotiation: A form of ‘horizontal’ interaction in which both stakeholders and the authorities responsible for MSP have equal powers for decision-making.

Adapted from: Bouamrame, M. (2006)

Just as it is not necessary to involve all stakeholders throughout every step in the MSP process (see above), it is similarly not necessary to involve stakeholders in exactly the same manner. During the pre-planning and planning steps, for example, it might be beneficial to stimulate ‘horizontal’ types of participation, allowing stakeholders to develop a common and shared opinion about their vision, requirements, expectations, goals and objectives for the use of marine space. At the same time, however, information sessions can be put in place allowing stakeholders to obtain the best available information upon which to base their opinions and vision.

Once a MSP plan has been developed by the responsible authorities and prior to final approval by the government, it will often be open for consultation during a certain period of time. For example, German authorities for MSP planning published drafts of MSP plans for the North Sea and Baltic Sea and made them available for public consultation over a period of four months. The United Kingdom made a draft of its Marine and Coastal Access Bill available for three months for pre-legislative consultation prior to introducing it to Parliament.

Keeping stakeholder engagement effective

When numerous diverse stakeholders with widely differing interests are involved in the MSP process, their participation may become ineffective and unmanageable. In such cases, there is a serious risk that the process may become blocked, even on issues for which stakeholders were not initially invited. Before starting the stakeholder participation process, here are a few key points to consider:

  • Different stakeholders talk different languages: Concerning MSP, different stakeholders have different visions of their spatial needs that are not necessarily easily understood, valued or taken seriously by other stakeholders or the management authorities;
  • Be clear about what type of stakeholder involvement is envisioned and what outputs are to be achieved: For sensitive issues, it might first be beneficial to consult, prior to the ‘official’ stakeholder involvement process, a key group of individuals to assess the perceptions and opinions about what is being proposed. This will allow you to gain insights on who will support and who will oppose the proposed actions and also for what reasons;
  • Professional facilitators: Quite often, stakeholder participation initiatives are already jeopardised from the start because the facilitator of stakeholder gatherings/meetings has biased viewpoints about MSP (or is considered to have them) because of his/her own interests. Particularly for sensitive or important issues, hiring professional facilitators to guide stakeholder participation meetings may be necessary;
  • A key strength of MSP is its ‘visualising power’: People, especially the general public and stakeholders who are not familiar with issues and viewpoints other than their own, will be more able to understand the scope of management actions, decisions or ideas if they are put into the visual form of maps instead of a narrative; and
  • Leadership: Exactly who is in charge and who will make the final spatial planning decisions within the marine management area should be made clear from the beginning of the process.

Adapted from: Bouamrame, M. (2006)

Good practices in engaging stakeholders

No good practice for engaging stakeholders exists that will work in every or even most MSP initiatives. Stakeholder engagement has to be tailored to individual countries, societies, cultures, traditions, and political contexts. What works in Canada will not work in Viet Nam or South Africa. In the United States, especially at the state level, stakeholders expect to be actively engaged throughout the MSP process, and have been in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Washington. In other countries, especially in Western Europe, stakeholders are often less involved, expecting government to do its job of making and implementing plans without active stakeholder engagement.

Transparency and openness are usually key principles for successful MSP. However, too often stakeholders and the general public are not engaged until after plans are developed. Almost all MSP plans claim to engage stakeholders, but fail to measure or document the effectiveness of stakeholder engagement or the satisfaction of stakeholders with the process. How stakeholders were selected to participate in the MSP is rarely documented—Sweden is an exception.

Several researchers have raised concerns about the quality of decisions stakeholder engagement processes deliver. Some claim that stakeholders make inadequate use of scientific information and are all too ready to sacrifice technical quality for political expediency. However, overall there is strong evidence that stakeholders improve decisions over the status quo, adding new information, ideas and analysis and have adequate access to technical and scientific resources. For example, the EU Directive on MSP encourages “relevant stakeholders to share information”. Data suggest that it is the more intensive stakeholder processes that are more likely to result in higher-quality decisions (Beierle 2002).

It is not only scientists who hold the key to achieving successful MSP outcomes whether they are the goals of marine conservation, economic development, or blue growth. Without the cooperation of stakeholders there will be no successes no matter what the science and the data tell us. Cooperation and mutual understanding are not easily achieved, but they are essential for success in achieving the overall goal of sustainable development (Eikeset et al. 2017).

Useful references:

Gopnik, Morgan, Clare Fieseler, and Larry Crowder, 2011. Stakeholder Participation in Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning. Nicholas Institute. NI PR S-1. Durham, NC: Duke University. Available at:

NOAA Coastal Services Centre, 2007. Introduction to Stakeholder Participation. Charleston, SC: Coastal Services Centre. 15 p. Available at:

Pomeroy, Robert, and Fanny Douvere, 2008. The engagement of stakeholders in the marine spatial planning process. Marine Policy 32. 816-822.

The Consensus Building Institute and The Massachusetts Ocean Partnership, 2009. Stakeholder Participation in Massachusetts Ocean Management Planning: Observations on the Plan Development Stage. Available here.

IOC-UNESCO’s Marine Spatial Planning: A Step-by-step Approach toward Ecosystem-based Management offers a 10-step guide on how to get a marine spatial plan started in your region – choose a step on the right and click on the title!

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