As discussed above, the performance of multistakeholder partnerships can be improved. To this end, we have identified nine conditions for success frequently encountered in the literature on multistakeholder partnerships. First, the relevance of actors and their specific resources, identities, and histories; Second, the relevance of process management: and third, the relevance of the problem-structure and broader “situational context” (Visseren-Hamakers et al. 2007). Table 1 provides an overview of the features of the nine conditions for success and the key literature used throughout this survey, which supports the observations.
The following sections elaborate on each of the conditions and provide recommendations for decision-makers.
Multistakeholder partnerships are essentially manifestations of networked governance which in turn is characterized by resource exchange. To find the appropriate mix of resources, knowledge and capabilities are thus by definition necessary to exploit synergies and an effective division of labor. For such networked governance to succeed, one needs the combined willingness, capability, and resources of partners, in particular, engagement from the most powerful and influential members (Beisheim 2012; Newell et al. 2012). Moreover, creating an optimal mix requires attention in the partner-search, and omitting powerful and important stakeholders can lead to suboptimal performance (Gray 2007, p. 36; Wigell 2008). A particularly salient issue was frequently raised as a topic during our consultations with CSOs, namely, the challenge of power-asymmetries between members. Large power-asymmetries in terms of sheer financial and human resources and information can be detrimental to trust among members from different sectors of society. To address partner challenges, it could be useful to map partners’ values and identities; to devise counter-arguments and common points of interest; and to identify where bargaining could be successful and not successful. Finally, transparency is key to building trust and mitigating power-asymmetries and should thus be promoted by engaging the members in open and transparent communication, decision-making, and evaluation.
To enable an optimal mix of partners, it is necessary to conduct a detailed and thorough assessment of needs (what partners would be needed to induce change?) and match it with the prevalent values and identities of potential partners.
Leadership by both individuals and organizations is by many considered a key ingredient, and during the course of the partnership’s life-time, different types of leadership are needed. The start of a partnership needs an entrepreneur or broker (Glasbergen 2010), “convener” (Gray 2007), or “orchestrator” (Abbott and Snidal 2010). They fill the functions of bringing people to the table, mitigating diverging opinions, and driving the difficult start-up process forward.
While good leadership is recognized as an important feature of successful partnerships, it remains difficult to operationalize. Most observers simply note that leadership is essential yet provide little information on the conditions for effective leadership and means to foster it. Nevertheless, it remains critical to identify and manage the different types of leadership needed for the partnership to succeed.
Beisheim and Liese argue that the effectiveness of multistakeholder partnerships partly depends on the “precision of norms” (2011) or, in other words, on how ambitious and stringent the goals have been set. High levels of precision limit the room for interpretation, while lower degrees of precision allow for discretion and interpretation. In many cases, rules are so vague and broad that they impede compliance, monitoring, reporting, and evaluation, and consequently limit accountability and transparency. Precise rules and goals also have a stabilizing and reassuring effect on governments and firms to invest resources when trying to achieve the goals of the partnership (Keohane and Victor 2011). An emerging challenge is to foster coherence in the international norm system to avoid, what Biermann et al. have called “conflictive fragmentation” (2009). Goals should therefore be aligned with international norms. Finally, Visseren-Hamakers et al. also connect trust building and improved collaboration to the level of consensus regarding strategies and goals, which in turn increases the likelihood for success (2007, p. 163). Hence, goal-setting is not only about the end product but also the way in which goals were set in a collaborative and inclusive process.
For goal-setting to succeed, it is important to have a good process in place. This includes developing a common vision and goals from the very outset, working toward a common problem-definition, and aiming for the clear and measurable goals. Moreover, a mapping of the compatibility between a partnership’s goals and other related processes (e.g., SDGs, CSR, human rights) reduces the risk of conflictive fragmentation (Biermann et al. 2009).
As the governance of sustainable development is arguably moving away from multilateral treaties and implementation via state-based agencies and programs, authors have warned against more unstable streams of funding as financing is increasingly provided through voluntary and “ultimately unpredictable” goodwill from private financiers (Martens 2007, p. 5). However, there is little evidence that governments are more likely to sustain a constant stream of funding than, for example, private funders such as foundations, and it is plausible to think that funding shortages can be actively managed. Governments are by no means the only source of income since, while private initiatives and foundations are becoming wealthier and perhaps increasingly important for providing common goods, as is the case, for example, in global health governance. It nevertheless highlights the need for adequate funding. Sourcing funds has thus become an increasingly important task for managers. There is no template for what funding model that works best. Successful organizations have employed a number of approaches, for example, limiting funding coming from one source, relying on membership fees or voluntary funding from the members, and funnelling money generated from activities back to the organizations (Reinicke et al. 2000). In sum, securing funding is more of an issue for multistakeholder partnerships than for traditional implementation programs.
A robust finding of partnership research is that effectiveness and good process management are related (Liese and Beisheim 2011). While it is hardly surprising that effective and efficient internal organization is conducive for the organizational goals to be met, in many cases, inadequate resources, time, and thinking are spent on managerial aspects. While the verdict is still out on what type of governance structure that optimizes effectiveness, some studies indicate that a small governing board of major donors, supported by a secretariat and room for input by a select group of affected stakeholders, is favorable for a lean and effective process management and decision-making (Liese and Beisheim 2011). Common strategic plans, clear division of roles and responsibilities, and multilevel forums to coordinate funding and resources have been identified as effective management structures (Aylward et al. 2003). Also smart management measures taken on a local level are found to facilitate success.
A frequent observation is that having full-time staff employed is conducive to effectiveness (Szulecki et al. 2011; Beisheim 2012). According to these studies, a high level of institutionalization with formal organization and bureaucracy is thus preferable to a loosely coupled network structure with, for example, a hosted secretariat within an already existing organization. However, there needs to be a balance between the level of institutionalization and the amount of red-tape. Existing institutions should be used as far as possible to avoid becoming a new institution or agency by limiting their bureaucracy’s work to only the essential coordination tasks (Reiniecke et al. 2000). Szulecki et al. also find that organizational characteristics such as a strong ‘corporate identity’ appear to be correlated with effectiveness (2011).
A good management structure includes staff focusing exclusively on partnership tasks, hiring staff with managerial experience to occupy key positions, ensuring effective communication between the process managers and key partnership members, as well as among the partnership members. Moreover, to avoid internal conflicts, we recommend creating dispute-settlement mechanisms.
Monitoring, reporting, evaluation, and learning
Monitoring, reporting, and evaluation practices among different multistakeholder partnerships vary substantially. While some arrangements publicly disclose annual reports, third party evaluations, and meeting documents, others barely report on meeting agendas and participants. However, we argue that a robust and open monitoring, reporting, and evaluation system to record progress and processes will have a positive effect on the performance of multistakeholder partnerships for three main reasons. First, it enables organizational learning. Institutions have proven more effective when they are able to adapt quickly to new circumstances (Folke et al. 2005). Second, both public and private constituencies are increasingly demanding accountability and disclosure of spending and impacts of financial or in-kind contributions. Third and finally, monitoring, reporting, and evaluation are needed to enhance transparency, which in turn is instrumental for process legitimacy (Wigell 2008; Bäckstrand 2012; Gupta and Mason 2014).
Consequently, a transparent and regular monitoring and reporting program is conducive and even necessary to foster organizational learning and legitimation for the partnership’s raison d’être.
A surge in alternative governance arrangements such as multistakeholder partnerships outside the traditional international institutions is an indicator of an emerging property of fragmentation in global governance which is characterized by uncoordinated and non-hierarchical institutional arrangements, often leading to functional overlap and competition among initiatives and norms (Biermann et al. 2009). Fragmentation could have negative effects on the governance architecture in the shape of inefficiencies and conflicting norms, goals, and policy processes. To mitigate the risk of “conflictive fragmentation”, multistakeholder partnerships should consider meta-governance, i.e., “the organisation of self-organisation” or “regulation of self-regulation” (Derkx and Glasbergen 2014). Research highlights two important aspects. First, goals of multistakeholder partnerships should be checked against a number of criteria to determine their conduciveness to, for example, the key principles of the UNFCCC, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Hyogo Framework for Action, and other international policy goals. Second, if they are to be incorporated into the formal regime and given a “seal of approval” from the UN, then there should be a bureaucracy with the mandate and power to vet new initiatives against set criteria, in particular to avoid what has been described as “blue washing.”
To promote good meta-governance, goals should be checked against a number of minimum criteria for their conduciveness to the SDGs and other sustainable development-related goals (e.g., climate change 2° target). We also recommended to carefully map the broader governance architecture in which the partnership is situated and consequently liaison with other partnerships, organizations and institutions working with related problems.
Political and social context
Multistakeholder partnerships interact with numerous international, national, and local institutional frameworks with an impact on sustainable development, and thus add to a dense patchwork of existing institutions. Consequently, the political and social context will influence the chance to succeed. For example, national production and consumption patterns, views of ruling elites, or geographical position could be major factors determining the outcome of a partnership. The political and social context is important at, at least, two levels. First, the political and social context is relevant at the level of the actual governance architecture. Building on Visseren-Hamakers et al. we note that partnerships can have three functions vis-à-vis the wider governance architecture: if functions are filled that support multilateral regimes, they are complementary; if functions are filled that used to be carried out by governments, they erode public authority; and, if functions are fulfilled in a new manner, they reinvent politics (Visseren-Hamakers et al. 2012). Second, those partnerships with implementation at the local level are highly dependent on local conditions. This can be used to complement the benefits of the governance arrangement. For example, best practices from multistakeholder partnerships in developing countries show the importance of learning and building on local institutional and governance structures when delivering common goods. It has also been shown that institutional capacity building was needed, in particular, in countries with a violent past (Stringer et al. 2014).
Mapping the governance architecture and the social and political context in which a multistakeholder partnership is situated is central to understanding the opportunities and challenges to implementation. It increases the possibility for tailor-made solutions rather than a “one-size fits all” approach. In some cases, local capacity building to create the institutional conditions for implementation, taking into account local conditions, is a necessary strategy to pave the way for a successful arrangement (Beisheim and Liese 2014, 208).
A final intervening variable that determines the likelihood of a successful partnership is the structure of the problem at hand. A range of researchers have argued that “malign problems” characterized by high levels of complexity, competing interests, and unclear solutions are less likely to be solved than “benign problems” where actors’ interests and preferences converge, and solutions are easier to identify (e.g., Miles et al. 2001). It is thus important to control for problem-structure when measuring the success of a partnership. In addition, when designing a partnership, it is therefore important to recognize that every problem has distinct features with specific administrative problems and political constituencies and thus requires different institutional setups (Abbott 2012; Keohane and Victor 2011). Problem-structure may, however, be malleable. Scientific discovery might reduce uncertainties in deciding what measures would be appropriate and thereby assist in building a business-case for addressing a policy issue.
Ultimately, it is important to investigate whether a multistakeholder partnership is the most appropriate solution to the problem at hand, or if there are other, more promising avenues that can be explored.