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Roger Clarke's 'Multi-Stakeholder RA, Vienna'

Evaluating the Impact of Digital Interventions into Social Systems:
How to Balance Stakeholder Interests

For the International Digital Security Forum (IDSF22)
Vienna, 1 June 2022

Stream on 'Understanding the Challenges of Digital Societies'

Discussion Draft of 13 May 2022

Roger Clarke **

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Interventions into social systems are of various kinds, including new and amended laws, variations in institutional structures and processes, and technological innovation. Social systems inevitably feature multiple participants, and significant interventions into social systems have impacts on most of them. Interventions also affect parties outside the system itself. Such parties are conveniently referred to as 'usees', to distinguish them from participants or 'users'. Participants and usees alike have interests, and each of them seeks to promote and defend those interests.

During the rational management era, since the mid-20th-century, various procedures have been used to assess the likely outcomes of interventions. These include business case development, net-present-value analysis, cost-benefit analyis, risk assessment, and impact assessment.

Most procedures used by organisations effectively treat the interests of that organisation as paramount, and relegate the interests of other participants and usees to the role of constraints on the achievement of the organisation's objectives. Such approaches as technology assessment, environmental impact assessment and privacy impact assessment, on the other hand, tend to adopt a broader view.

This paper seeks a practicable mechanism whereby the interests of participants and usees can be reflected in the assessment of interventions. Existing theory and practice are drawn on, and options outlined. A particular approach is described, referred to as Multi-Stakeholder Risk Assessment (MSRA), and examples provided of real-world instances that evidence some of the features of MSRA.


1. Introduction

The broad theme of this event is 'digital security'. As in all discussions of the notion of security, confusion and misunderstanding will be rife unless clear statements are made about 'security of what, against what, and for whom?'. The conference theme permits many interpretations, some involving 'security of digital infrastructure or processes', others with a focus on 'security against digital infrastructure or processes', and in both cases with a wide range of potential beneficiaries and victims.

This paper considers the effects of interventions involving or affecting structures and processes in digital society. Interventions can of course be of many kinds, including new or amended legislation, regulatory measures of some other nature, adaptation of institutional or sectoral infrastructure, particularly due to shifts in market power, changes in business processes, and new forms and new applications of transformative or disruptive technologies.

Interventions of scale or other significance may or may not deliver the 'obvious' or expected or intended outcomes. Added to that, they may have substantial first-order impacts, and particularly second-order implications, that were unforeseen by the intervention's proponents. It is therefore widely recognised that the impacts and implications of interventions require evaluation. A wide variety of evaluation techniques exists. Mainstream techniques applied by business enterprises include business case development and risk assessment. Techniques with broader scope include cost/benefit analysis and technology assessment.

The analysis reported in the present paper is concerned with security of the interests of stakeholders of all kinds against interventions, and particularly interventions involving technologies. Some evaluation techniques have a very tight focus on the interests of a single stakeholder, whereas other approaches are more amenable to consideration of the concerns of multiple players. The paper's purpose is to seek a practicable mechanism whereby the interests of relevant players can be reflected in the assessment of interventions.

The paper commences by summarising key insights from stakeholder theory. This enables consideration of the extent to which each of the variety of evaluation techniques is capable of reflecting the interests of multiple users. An alternative with promise is argued to be an adapted form of the conventional and well-documented business approach of risk assessment. As a preliminary test of the proposition, some exemplars of such an approach are identified.

2. Stakeholder Theory

The term 'stakeholders' was coined as a counterpoint to 'shareholders', in order to bring into focus the interests of parties other than the corporation's owners (Freeman & Reed 1983). In IT contexts, users of information systems have long been recognised as stakeholders, commencing in the 1970s with employees. With the maturation of inter-organisational and then extra-organisational systems (Clarke 1992), IT services extended beyond organisations' boundaries, and hence many suppliers and customers, both corporate and individual, became 'users' as well.

The notion of 'stakeholders' is broader than just users, however. It comprises not only participants in information systems but also "any other individuals, groups or organizations whose actions can influence or be influenced by the development and use of the system whether directly or indirectly" (Pouloudi & Whitley 1997, p.3). The term 'usees' is usefully descriptive of such once-removed stakeholders (Berleur & Drumm 1991 p.388, Clarke 1992, Fischer-Huebner & Lindskog 2001, Wahlstrom & Quirchmayr 2008, Baumer 2015).

The stakeholder notion has been subjected to further analysis and discussion during the almost four decades since it emerged. One analysis distinguishes stakeholders on the basis of power, legitimacy and urgency (Mitchell et al. 1997).

Much as an approach based on ethics might dictate that 'legitimacy' has primacy, a strong tendency has been evident, in industry and government practice alike, to pay attention to the interests of only those stakeholders that are capable of significantly affecting the success of the project - as perceived by the project sponsor. The interests of that organisation are treated as paramount, and the interests of other participants and usees are relegated to the role of constraints on the achievement of the primary organisation's objectives. All but the most powerful participants are thereby marginalised (Achterkamp & Vos 2008).

3. Options for Reflecting Multiple Stakeholders' Interests

A wide range of evaluation techniques exists, with widely varying approaches and foci. This analysis excludes consideration of activities that are merely concerned with checking an organisation's compliance with 'soft' regulatory instruments (such as codes of ethics and industry standards), or with a statute or delegated legislation such as a formal Code, or with a broad body of law (such as safety, data privacy or consumer rights).

Mainstream techniques within organisations include Business Case Development (BCD, Schmidt 2005), Discounted Cash Flow Analysis (DCF, SoW 2013) and Net Present Value Analysis (NPV, Dikov 2020), financial sensitivity analysis and financial risk assessment. All of these depend on quantification, and in particular on the expression of costs and benefts in financial terms. The analysis is generally undertaken from the perspective of a single legal entity or government agency. In the case of interventions in which technology plays a major role, that organisation is typically the system sponsor.

Some single-organisation assessment techniques extend to factors that cannot be readily reduced to financial values, whose representations are referred to as 'non-quantifiable' or 'qualitative' data. These approaches include internal Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA, Stobierski 2019) and Risk Assessment (RA), which is further discussed below. All of these techniques are highly organisation-centric, and only reflect interests of some other party if that stakeholder is perceived by the organisation to be sufficiently powerful to be able to affect the organisation's capacity to achieve its purposes.

Some other techniques have a much broader frame of reference. Technology Assessment (TA) is concerned with the evaluation of potential impacts and implications of a particular technical capability (OTA 1977, Garcia 1991). Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA, Morgan 2012) is an approach that evaluates the effects on the physical environment (air, land and water) of a development project such as a mine, a dam, transport infrastructure, a manufacturing facility, a built-up area or even a single large building. Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) considers effects on individuals' privacy interests - although often only the privacy interests involved in personal data (Clarke 2009, Wright & de Hert 2012). Social impact assessment (Becker & Vanclay 2003) has a broader remit, and surveillance impact assessment (Wright & Raab 2012, Wright et al. 2015) combines technological with psychological and social impact assessment.

It is feasible to apply some such form of impact assessment approach in order to address the concerns of particular stakeholders. However, the approach is seldom consistent with any particular organisation's perceived needs, and is in direct conflict with the legal responsibility of Board directors to serve the interests of shareholders. Moreover, it demands considerable depth and breadth of analysis and hence considerable resources with specialist expertise.

4. Risk Assessment (RA)

The approach that appears to offer the best prospects is risk assessment. An industry standard is published as ISO 27005:2011. See also, for example, NIST (2012), EC (2016).

The assessment of risk needs to be based on a model of security, and on a set of terms with sufficiently clear definitions. In the sub-area of data security, a substantial literature exists, and this provides a useful framework that can be drawn on in other contexts. A depiction of the conventional security model is in Exhibit 1.

Briefly, threatening events impinge on vulnerabilities, resulting in security incidents that may give rise to harm to assets. Safeguards provide protections against threatening events, vulnerabilities and harm. Security is a condition in which harm is in part prevented, and in part mitigated, because threats and vulnerabilities are subject to safeguards that withstand countermeasures. The terms are defined in Appendix 1.

Exhibit 1: The Conventional Security Model

Extract from Clarke (2015, p.547-549)

The conventional Risk Assessment process uses a short sequence of steps to apply the concepts in Exhibit 1 in order to identify and understand residual, inadequately-addressed risks, and hence lay the foundation for Risk Management activities to address them.

5. Multi-Stakeholder Risk Assessment (MSRA)

The RA technique was conceived to serve the interests of the organisation that conducts the evaluation, or that commissions the work to be performed. Standards documents and most guidelines for performing the technique reflect those origins. On the other hand, I argued in Clarke (2019, p.413), in the specific context of Artificial Intelligence (AI), that:

  1. The responsible application of AI is only possible if stakeholder analysis is undertaken in order not only to identify the categories of entities that are or may be affected by the particular project, but also to gain insight into those entities' needs and interests;
  2. Risk Assessment processes that reflect the interests of stakeholders need to be broader than those commonly undertaken within organisations; and
  3. The responsible application of AI depends on Risk Assessment processes being conducted from the perspective of each stakeholder group, to complement that undertaken from the organisation's perspective.

In this paper, I argue that those assertions apply not only to applications of Artificial Intelligence, but also to technologically-based interventions generally: RA is capable of adaptation to accommodate stakeholders additional to the system sponsor.

In Exhibit 2, a depiction is provided of a conventional, organisation-internal RA process, extended to encompass multiple, parallel assessments, all of which draw on a common base of information, but each of which is undertaken from the perspective of a particular stakeholder. The results of the various assessments need to be then integrated into a consolidated multi-view. That multi-view then needs to be applied during the design and implementation phases in order to manage the identified risks.

Exhibit 2: Multi-Stakeholder Risk Assessment and Risk Management

Further Development from Clarke (2019, p.414)

In Clarke (2019), the term 'Multi-Stakeholder Risk Assessment' (MSRA) was applied to this technique. Although it is a straightforward descriptor, searches of previous usage in the refereed literature have found only a few casual uses of the expression, of which Molarius et al. (2016) appears to be the most relevant. The term 'Multi-Stakeholder Risk Management' (MSRM), applicable to the subsequent phases in which the consolidated multi-view is applied, has also put in a small number of appearances in the literature, notably in Young & Jordan (2002) and Shackelford & Russell (2016).

MSRA could serve the interests of stakeholders additional to the system sponsor in at least two ways, which are outlined in the following two sub-sections.

5.1 Parallel, Competitive, Largely-Independent RAs

One approach would be for a risk assessment process to be performed by each relevant category of stakeholders, or by some collaboration, collective, advocacy organisation or proxy representing the interests of the relevant category. However, each activity requires information, and adequate human resources with the relevant expertise; and multiple such undertakings would need to be conducted.

The asymmetry of information, resources and power, and the degree of difference in world-views among stakeholder groups, is commonly so pronounced that the results of such independent activities are difficult to communicate to other players with materially different world views. The results appear unlikely to be assimilated by the system sponsor, and integrated into the organisation's ways of working.

In short, only those stakeholders with sufficient market power are likely to be able to force the system sponsor to recognise the legitimacy of their claims. In any case, all are readily played off by the system sponsor, who can portray them as being in competition with one another rather than having substantial commonality of interest.

5.2 Collaborative, Interwoven, Mutually-Informing RAs

The chances of the promise of MSRA bearing fruit may be much better where each of the parties perceives advantages to themselves in gaining an understanding of the various perspectives and, to the extent feasible, accommodating the interests of all other parties.

The technique could achieve traction where the system sponsor recognises that it is advantageous to drive the parallel studies and engage directly with the relevant parties. The organisation can gain sufficiently deep understanding, and can reflect stakeholders' needs in the project design criteria and features. Moreover, it may be able to do so without bearing disproportionate cost, and with harm to its own interests kept within manageable bounds.

A second circumstance in which a multi-pronged risk assessment approach could be feasible is where the system sponsor adopts it for 'business ethics', 'corporate social responsibility' or 'public policy' reasons. This appears most likely in circumstances where the institutional context reinforces collaborative and human-wellbeing values. For example, the system sponsor may be a public agency whose mission is to deliver particular economic and/or social value to particular citizen segments. Alternatively, the system sponsor may be working under a government grant or contract, or may be a joint venture in which at least some of the participating organisations recognise a social-responsibility imperative.

A third possibility exists. A requirement could be imposed on a system sponsor to reflect the interests of multiple stakeholders, with a sufficiently credible threat of enforcement action to motivate compliance. Apart from formal statutory authority, such a requirement might derive from the institutional environment, such as licensing conditions, or 'moral suasion' by a powerful regulatory agency, or perhaps just cultural conventions within the industry sector or country.

6. Exemplars

The argument presented above has been almost entirely theoretical, with little evidence of practical application, let alone of economic and social drivers that could bring the ideas to fruition. This section tests whether the proposition has potential, by seeking out circumstances in which at least some of the characteristics of MSRA are apparent.

6.1 Small-Scale Environmental Impact Assessment

In many countries, large-scale interventions into the landscape are subject to substantial, formal and cumbersome procedures. Where the intervention is less dramatic, but is impactful, or is perceived or is feared to be so, the sponsor may find it necessary, advisable or advantageous to conduct an MSRA in order to identify and understand the concerns of the various interest groups. An example might be a facility that handles chemicals, such as a fire station, being developed or extended adjacent to, or upstream from, a lagoon that harbours frogs and whose surrounds are used for children's leisure activities.

6.2 Access to Mineral Ore-Bodies

Where a mining company wants to extract ore from an area that is in a reserve, or is subject to laws conferring some form of native title, it may need to negotiate with indigenous groups. If the company wants to get to grips with the possibly diverse, complex and/or vague concerns of such groups, the multi-stakeholder risk assessment approach may be an attractive tool.

6.3 Closure of a Large Regional Facility

During a period when decentralisation was in vogue, a government agency may have established an operational facility in a regional city or town. It may have been, or gradually become, a significant employer in the district. The time may come to close the facility, particularly if it performs functions that have been overtaken by technological innovation, such as bulk printing-and-posting or the scanning of manual forms arriving in the post. The agency may find it politically necessary to conduct an assessment of the impact of closure, taking into account the circumstances of many segments of society, and both economic and social effects. A large corporation for which public image is important may also find it advisable to adopt a process of this nature.

6.4 Inherently Dangerous or Intrusive Interventions

Medical implants may provide good exemplars of multi-stakeholder risk assessment and management. The industry involves designers undertaking carefully-designed pilot studies, with active participation by multiple health care professionals, patients, and patient advocacy organisations.

6.5 Overcoming Harmful Monopolies

A government might seek to break open a monopoly marketspace, perhaps through legislation or moral suasion. Such an intervention may be designed to restructure the institution and change its business processes, probably taking advantage of technology, in order to balance the interests of the parties involved in it, and the parties dependent on it. An MSRA might be an effective means of exposing the impacts of the current arrangements, gaining public support, and shaming the current beneficiaries into accepting the need for change. An example in the livestock industry was the hog auction market in Singapore (Neo 1992).

6.6 Creating an Open Marketspace

In the 1980s, Australian livestock producers, distant from major population-centres, faced high costs to get their stock to saleyards, and low prices offered for their product by well-informed agents for supermarket chains, in so-called 'farm-gate private treaties'. The problem-definition process reflected the principles intrinsic to MSRA. The producers' association then developed an early online auction scheme, the computer-aided livestock marketing (CALM) system. Supported by a newly-created class of certified stock inspectors, the scheme published the prices paid for various stock-categories nationwide. The result was reduced information asymmetry in the marketspace, and a better balance among the market-participants' interests (Clarke & Jenkins 1993).

6.7 Balancing Interests in a Networked Industry Sector

Industry sectors such as health, international trade, and major infrastructure such as sea-ports and airports, are not organised as linear supply-chains, nor in a hub-and-spoke or star configuration. They feature many specialised enterprises, and many inter-linkages and flows among those enterprises, overlaid by considerable regulatory interference to satisfy such public-interest needs as safety, hygiene, service quality and tax-collection. Changes to architecture, infrastructure, data flows and business processes need to take into account the interests of a wide range of participants and beneficiaries. MSRA has attributes that satisfy some of those needs (Clarke 1994, Cameron 2009).

6.8 The Platform-Based Business Sector

A particular form of sectoral transformation is commonly referred to as the 'technology platform' model. Disruptors such as eBay (since 1995), (1996), Expedia (1996), Tripadvisor (2000), Mechanical Turk (2005), YouTube (2005), Airbnb (2008), (2009), Pinterest (2009) and Uber (2009) have taken advantage of new technology and their lack of any legacy technology or labour force, by deploying new services at a speed that large, established, and in many cases highly-regulated corporations simply cannot replicate.

The profiles of some of these platforms include two additional features. One is long-term under-cutting of existing markets, linked with loss-leadership, and supported by low-paid piece-workers and ever-growing investment based on the assumption of future super-profits. The other is a deep disregard for the laws that apply to the sector that the innovator is determined to redefine. Case studies have highlighted abject failure by regulatory agencies to enforce those laws, in many jurisdictions ( Wyman 2017, Clarke 2022). The dislocation and financial losses suffered by investors and employees alike would have been mitigated had a multi-stakeholder risk assessment been undertaken and a transition strategy designed to enable progress without such dramatic negative consequences.

7. Conclusions

Interventions have short-term impacts and medium-term implications. Large-scale and otherwise impactful interventions need to be evaluated not just implemented. Many assessment techniques have a tight focus on the interests of the system sponsor. There are few drivers for multi-stakeholder assessment. To the extent that other stakeholders' interests are reflected, it is because those particular parties have sufficient power.

Inevitably, stakeholders that merely have legitimacy and/or urgency suffer depradations from interventions, because the interventions' sponsors are not attuned to their interests. In many cases, harm to their interests could have been avoided, or at least mitigated, and even some benefits delivered, with only limited compromise to the sponsor's objectives, if their needs had been factored into the design.

Even if the will exists to reflect stakeholders' legitimacy as well as their power, there are challenges in finding suitable evaluation techniques to apply. Business Case Development is driven by the prospects of profit. Most of the variants of Impact Assessment concern themselves with particular categories of effect that interventions may have. Technology Assessment, concerned as it is with a broad technology with many capabilities, which may give rise to a variety of interventions into economic and social systems, tends to be highly informative, but its influence is dissipated across many contexts.

The choice may seem strange, but the well-developed technique of Risk Assessment - a creature of rational enterprise management - may harbour the best prospects for reflecting the interests of multiple stakeholders. Preliminary testing of the Multi-Stakeholder Risk Assessment (MSRA) technique, by searching for contexts in which some of its hallmarks are evident, identifies a variety of exemplars. Further experimentation and trialling is necessary, to establish whether it can fulfil the need.

Reference List

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Appendix 1: The Conventional Security Model: A Glossary

Adapted version of Clarke (2015, p.547-549)

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor associated with the Allens Hub for Technology, Law and Innovation in UNSW Law, and a Visiting Professor in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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