Interlocutor – Who it is and what they do

Alan Fowler’s Interlocutor Discussion Paper

Tackling a society’s problems increasing calls for collective action between diverse actors and their capabilities.  There is a growing demand for people or entities that are able to form and hold multi-actor collaboration and bring it to fruition.  But who are they and what attributes do they need?  IMI is at the forefront in answering this question.  Drawing on studies across Africa led by Fletcher Tembo, IMI co-founder Alan Fowler is working on the concept of an “interlocutor” as a distinct function that animates and guides complex collaborative arrangements that seek to change more than the rules of problem-creating games for society such as poverty, inequality and global warming.

Establishing collective action
If collective action is needed, then a critical issue then becomes, what type of actor is best placed and equipped to bring necessary collective action into being and to fruition? Many specialisms have been employed in the past -such as Facilitator, Intermediary, Mediator, Convenor, Broker, Orchestrator and Activator. These roles have obvious overlap; whilst also having significant differences – as noted in the following table.


Typical Attributes

Facilitator Practitioner skilled in bringing about processes to reach an agreed outcome between parties.  Neutral, temporary presence.
Intermediary A go-between opening up channels for communication to explore and pave the way for new relations and opportunities.  Neutral, temporary presence.
Mediator Skilled in overcoming antipathy to enable dialogue and negotiation to proceed.  Neutral, temporary presence.
Convenor Provides a trusted space and setting for the coming together of diverse actants towards accomplishing a clear purpose.  May or may not be an instigator with a continued presence.
Broker Professional dedicated to establishing and guiding transactions between parties.  Neutral, temporary presence.
Orchestrator An actant in their own right in forming and guiding collective action with a recognised role/authority to do so.  Ongoing, ascribed presence.
Activator Initiator of collective actions that invoke self-formed/self-propagating initiatives, typically energised by dissatisfactions with prevailing conditions.  Embedded, ongoing presence.


Interlocutors are distinct in bringing an embedded and ongoing presence in interlocution processes.  They bring a system perspective to a mix of relation-building capabilities. Examples of  interlocutors and interlocution as a process are being gathered to see if and how international NGOs can take up this role, which will be critical for making post 2015 development work effective.  If INGOs cannot do this, who will?

What is the role of an interlocutor?
Drawing on Tembo (2013), “interlocutors are the organisations or individuals with the necessary ‘game-changing’ characteristics to address a collective action problem or situation so that appropriate solutions can be found. Interlocution processes are [therefore] the processes involved in finding solutions: the game-changing actions themselves…[In stimulating collective action] the pre-occupation of ‘interlocutors’ in these situations is to facilitate processes of coming up with new relationships, and rules that can reduce problems such as ‘free riding’.” IMI’s Fowler defines it as follows: An interlocutor is a context-specific actorst, present and playing pivotal roles in resolving collective action problems at scales demonstrating institutional effects.

What examples to do we have of interlocutors? And with what attributes?
Examples of innovative approaches to collective action are arising in the forms of Backbone Organisations, Collaborative Intermediary Organisations (CIOs), Pro-Forma Partnerships (PFPs) and Meshworks. These examples of bringing about and leading collective action help identify the attributes of interlocutors as a combination of seven elements:

  • Leadership
  • Trust building
  • System sensitivity and scaling
  • Awareness of polycentric governance, distributed authority/power
  • Presence in the process and in for the long haul
  • Polyglot
  • Sovereignty

IMI’s Fowler has made this initial attempt to explore an emerging concept in collective action theory and practice across a wide terrain.  Whether these seven attributes stand the test of time is less important than the fact that innovations are underway which signal a need and niche for more and better ways of bringing complex collective action into play and to completion.  A practical next step in this work would be test the attributes noted above against real life cases past and present, particularly where multi-disciplinarity and collaboration across institutional interfaces and frictions are involved.  To investigate when and how, for example, does cross-institutional collective action come into being and brought to re-institutionalised fruition by whom under what conditions?  Updates to this work in progress will feature on the IMI website.

Alan Fowler, 2014, copyright, all rights reserved

Concept sources: Rethinking Social Accountability in Africa: Lessons from the Mwananchi Programme, Fletcher Tembo, Mwananchi Programme, Sept., 2013; Wicked Problems and Interlocutors: An Exploration, Alan Fowler, unpublished, 2014.