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2.3.3 Communication with stakeholders about risk

Contents
2.3.3.1 The perception of risk
2.3.3.2 Credibility
2.3.3.3 Linking issues

2.3.3.1 The perception of risk

Differences may exist between the way communities and engineers think about risk, resulting in communications between the two groups sometimes being rather difficult [CIRIA-2005]. Experiences have shown hat ‘top-down’ risk communication is unlikely to resolve environmental risk controversies. As a result, risk communication and policy practice have moved towards a two-way dialogue between the ‘community’ and ‘experts’.

Despite for example the tendency to consider widely-reported events to be more likely than they really are, or other biases that have impact on the perception of risk, the ability of the general public to rank frequency of death from hazards is often not unrealistic. However, the perception of the general public diverges from ‘scientific’ risk assessment in that they factor in ‘quality’ of hazard, e.g., thread, familiarity and catastrophic potential. Different forms of death and disease are not feared equally.

Further, the general public’s understanding of a risk should not be confused with the general public’s acceptance of the risk. The level of acceptable risk is a matter of values and opinions. Any evaluation of options should therefore explicitly incorporate underlying values and social factors such as fairness and the balance of benefit and risk. Steps that result in a fair and more voluntary distribution of risk will be helpful.

The feeling that the measures have been implemented that can sensibly be taken to reduce the risk, and that effective monitoring and emergency response arrangements have been installed, is important to acceptability. Communities also tend to look for independent monitoring and open reporting of results, in addition to other indications that adverse findings will not be concealed, so that action will be taken if things do not turn out as predicted. Moreover, communities look for a design that allows for a change of plan if the unexpected happens, and the potential for effective countermeasures on the occurrence of a failure.

Motivation is very important, and the corporate values of the organisation(s) involved will make a difference. It is important to identify who will benefit from a project and whether this benefit is ‘deserved’.

Any stakeholder programme has to deal with these risk perception and acceptability factors in an open and straightforward way if participants are expected to see it as addressing their concerns, which must never be considered as ‘unscientific’.

2.3.3.2 Credibility

The credibility of a person talking about risk not only depends on the person’s technical competence [CIRIA-2005]. It is also strongly influenced by the commitment shown to stakeholder involvement, whether the concerns being expressed are understood and considered with sympathy, and whether the person acts in an open, honest and direct manner.

Independence and objectivity are important considerations as well. Information from ‘biased’ sources will tend to be distrusted, particularly where the motives of the organisation(s) involved are primarily commercial or political. Highest appreciation will be given to information that is clearly neutral and addresses all sides of the arguments. An independent peer review of the important subjective judgements supporting the analysis may be necessary to underpin a comparison of the options for a controversial project.

2.3.3.3 Linking issues

The public rarely sees decisions as independent of a wider context [CIRIA-2005]. Decisions that are part of a wider programme, such as site restoration, are perceived as being linked, and if the wider picture can not be seen, the public will likely feel mistrust and/or frustration. An involvement process will be successful only if the participants fully understand the context, for example, how a decision on one element of a wider plan fits together with decisions on other elements and on the overall framework. Participants need to be informed if proposals may be overturned or modified at a later stage or if other bodies might initiate a separate consultation (e.g., regulators). Communities link issues and decisions that seem separate to industry and regulators. Communities also see little distinction between a policy and its implementation.

Members of the public usually wish to express their views on the overall merits of a project and of alternatives [CIRIA-2005]. They are rarely in a position to make much contribution on the technical development of the proposal. However, a programme that aims to involve members of the public by allowing them to comment only on technical details will create frustration. Frequently, members of the public want to be heard on matters of their concern that may be outside the formal scope of the consultation process and even outside the scope of the project team’s decision making. Exclusion and abrupt rejection of comments as ‘outside the scope of what is to be discussed’ is liable to provoke angry reactions. Therefore, some flexibility is required, and mechanisms are needed for passing on such comments and obtaining a response.

In general, for environmental debates representing conflicts over competing social values as well as disagreements over scientific and economic data, the public and wider stakeholder community may provide a social peer review function. This may be compared to a technical peer review but represents different sorts of processes and require different, perhaps parallel, approaches.

In addition, there is the challenge of integrating the technical, the social and the local democratic inputs. Unless the decision-making process is tailored to accommodate all three types of input and is agreed before the process starts, the hard-won social input from the general public may simply be put to one side.