The problem with ‘stakeholders’

No, not you, if that’s what you call yourself. I’ve got nothing against you. I just don’t like the word. Aside from it being bureaucratese, there’s something … presumptuous about it. As though one can accurately identify certain people as "stakeholders" which implies (but does not necessarily mean, I suppose) that some people are not.

I have this thing about the interconnectedness of all things that bridles at the notion that one can readily identify "stakeholders."

Then again, I suppose there’s a small-R republican part of me that objects to the context in which I usually find the term. I believe in representative democracy, not the direct kind. Barack Obama and other community organizer types are probably a lot more comfortable with the word, and with the concept of including all "stakeholders" (which in a community organizer sense I suppose means everybody who shows up at your meeting) in the decision-making process. Me, I’m all for listening to folks, but at some point a decision has to be made by the folks elected to do so. And often, very often, the correct decision is going to anger "stakeholders." And far, far too often, elected officials nowadays lack the cojones to go ahead and make that decision, because they’re so terrified of the "stakeholders."

Take, for instance, the issue of establishing a comprehensive center to deal with homelessness in metro Columbia. The city proper’s government has repeatedly bollixed up efforts to make this happen, out of fear of a certain sort of "stakeholder" — neighboring residents and business people motivated by the NIMBY principle. Here’s the thing about that: This center would be good for the community as a whole, and would in fact pull homeless people OFF the streets in its immediate area and start dealing with their problems. It needs to go SOMEWHERE, and that somewhere needs to be a place that homeless people can get to.

You may recall that several sites have been rejected over the last couple of years, from the State Hospital property on Bull St. (which would have been perfect for the temporary site that was under consideration), to one right down the road from us (which was fine with us at the newspaper, but OTHER "stakeholders" objected, so it fell apart).

In recent days, the group of citizens that has been busting its collective hump to make this thing happen in SPITE of the city has been moving toward establishing the center at the current Salvation Army site on Main St. Some on city council have been pushing a site down by the canal that you and I can’t actually see from the road (at least I haven’t). Maybe that’s a good site, but there are a couple of problems: The first is that the people who’ve actually been WORKING on the issue have a lot invested in the Main St./Elmwood site. The second is that, while the city council folks pushing the canal site say theirs is better because residential neighbors object to the Main/Elmwood one (true), now that word of it has gotten out, neighbors of the canal site are ready to sue as well (specifically, one big neighbor, the Canalside development). So it’s a wash.

The other day I remarked to Warren and Cindi that what’s needed is for the "stakeholders" OTHER than the neighbors need to get their act together and unite behind a site — something that’s supposed to happen in a meeting at 2:30 p.m. today, in fact — and then deal with the objections of neighbors. Because the objection of neighbors is a constant. It’s a wash. You have to deal with it either way. And the fact that some "stakeholders" are always going to be opposed cannot be allowed to prevent anything from happening.

Too many people who say "stakeholders" a lot think everybody has to be happy with a decision. As long as you’re willing to face the fact that some "stakeholders" will be unhappy even when you do the right thing (and some of them especially if you do the right thing), then by all means, go ahead and use the word.

What, you ask, set me off on this topic? Oh, I was cleaning out my e-mail from recent days, and ran across this, which is really unrelated to my rant about the word:



Oct. 8, 2008

DHEC announces water stakeholder meetings

– As part of an evaluation of the uses and quality of South Carolina’s
freshwater, t
S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control will be holding stakeholders
meetings across the state, the agency announced today.

will have an opportunity to share their thoughts on freshwater quality
standards, classifications, and uses, as they relate to recreation," said David
Wilson, chief of DHEC’s Bureau of Water. "We’ll be sharing information and also
will be available to answer questions and concerns….

I’m guessing that since this was a public announcement, "stakeholder" means anybody who shows up, although maybe I’m misunderstanding. Used to be we were "citizens," or "the public." But now we’re "stakeholders," and are we any better off for it? I don’t think so.

One thought on “The problem with ‘stakeholders’

  1. Doug Ross

    Slightly off-topic, but my church (First Baptist Columbia) does a monthly Feed The Hungry meal on the fourth Saturday of each month. I’m collecting items to distribute at the next meal on 10/25. Winter items like coats, blankets, sleeping bags, socks, gloves, backpacks, pants, sweaters, etc. are always needed. Please contact me at if you have anything you’d like to donate — I will make arrangements to pick it up.
    I can’t express how eye-opening it is to spend time talking with the homeless of Columbia. Last month, I acted as the “greeter” at the start of the food line. Many of these people have issues related to drugs and alcohol, but others seem to be just one small break away from getting back on track. I learn something new each time I participate — like how prevalent it is for the homeless to sell their plasma.
    I guess to put this back on topic, I’d say I’m okay with the term “stakeholder”. Each of us can be impacted as well as have an impact on an issue. Stakeholder seems to require more active involvement than “disinterested voter”.

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