Role-play exercise for multi-stakeholder collaboration

Navigating the challenges of global change will require scientists to engage with countless, diverse stakeholders in collaborative decision-making. It is often difficult to collaborate with stakeholders who have different backgrounds, knowledge, assumptions, and values. This is especially a significant challenge to the Interfaces of Global Change fellows whose encounters are mostly limited within the academic bubble. Down the road, however, we will be engaged in conversation and negotiation with diverse stakeholders who are not always scientists or scholars. If we want our science to have an influence, then we need to understand who the other stakeholders in our systems are, how they interpret the given situation and information, and what their priorities and interests are. The best way to learn is always “by doing,” so in a recent IGC seminar, fellows engaged in a role-playing exercise for multi-stakeholder participation.

The exercise required the fellows to role-play different stakeholders in a fictional watershed management scenario in which a watershed has been deemed impaired. They all had to work together to best remedy this issue under a strict budget. The stakeholder roles were assigned to represent diverse socio-economic and environmental dimensions that could be found in the management of a watershed.

Many interesting points came up during the exercise. Throughout the discussion, stakeholders kept asking questions about scientific facts including what is the primary cause of watershed pollution in the area, the impact of cattle on water quality, the effectiveness of each strategy improving water quality, and so on. These facts are critical to figuring out who is responsible for each strategy and for building an effective strategic plan. It illustrates that science cannot be separated from planning and policy decision-making.

The exercise also shows that multi-stakeholder participation can improve the quality of management decisions. In the beginning of the exercise, the person role-playing the Virginia Department of Natural Resources allocated the agency’s total budget equally to septic system improvement, fencing out cows from streams, tree planting for riparian vegetation, and water quality monitoring, but this initial plan was changed as stakeholders discussed priorities and timeline for more effective water protection. At the end of the exercise, the agency decided to put most of its budget for the first year into the septic system and water-monitoring program to examine the impact of septic system improvement on water quality. The information from water monitoring will be reflected in future years’ strategy development and budget allocation. This is an ideal example of adaptive management, which attempts to reduce uncertainty over time by actively integrating continuous feedback into the management strategy. The diverse stakeholder collaboration created this outcome, which may not have formed without all members present.

The exercise ended with a short debrief. Fellows pointed out the importance of visual tools like maps, which help collective understanding of situations, and understanding the powers and responsibilities coinciding with different stakeholder roles. Among those valuable insights, the most important takeaway of the day would be this: participation does matter with science. This reasserts why we need to learn how to communicate science in an inclusive and participatory manner that is directly connected to one of IGC’s goals.


Chloe Moore is a first year PhD student in the Mims Lab interested in studying the landscape genomics of amphibians and multispecies inference.
Hye-jeong Seo is a working towards her PhD in the Planning, Governance and Globalization program under the advisement of Dr. Todd Schenk. She has strong interests in environmental risk communication for public dispute resolution and decision-making.