Survey reveals varied approach to risk communication across the EU

A survey of EU Member States and six other countries has shown that the practice of risk communication varies widely from one country to another. The authors of the resulting report call for an annual forum to exchange good practice.
Among risk experts, risk communication is regarded as being at the heart of the risk management process. In 2002, the International Organisation for Standardisation agreed a definition of risk communication as the ‘exchange or sharing of information about risk between the decision-maker and other stakeholders’.
To assess whether this definition reflected risk communication in practice, the STARC (Stakeholders in Risk Communication) consortium, a project supported by the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), surveyed the EU 25 Member States and six other countries – Australia, Canada, Japan, Norway, Switzerland and the US on their risk communication use and practice.
First, countries were surveyed to see whether they followed any legal requirements for risk communications to the public. The majority of countries had compulsory guidelines, while a small minority had no such provisions. Denmark’s approach was representative. There, each authority is responsible for providing information to the public in case of a crisis within their own area. The Danish model places a strong emphasis on providing true and timely information to the public and media.
Some countries left the broadcast of public warning messages to media organisations. However, a few countries – Germany, Portugal and Sweden – based their legal frameworks around the EU’s Seveso II directive on the control of major-accident hazards. This directive defines communications as conveying information to the public and interaction with the stakeholders. The authors of the report suggest more countries should put specific legal frameworks around this area, using the EU Directive as a foundation.
The majority of countries surveyed do not require companies listed on a stock exchange to include in their annual reports a survey on risk assessment and how they are managing risks. Of those countries that do have such requirements, Finland’s response could be considered representative. Finland requires regulated industries such as telecoms, energy supply, health care, banking and insurance, water supply, and transportation to supply details of risk communication and management.
In the province of Québec, industries must make an inventory of risks to the public and to provide it to the municipal and/or provincial government, under the civil protection act of Québec.
Almost all respondents said that ‘risky’ industries must provide the public with an assessment of the risks they face, and how they manage those risks. Austria, Estonia and Greece were the only countries to ones to have no such legislation. Respondents cited the chemical, pharmaceutical, nuclear, energy industry and oil and gas industries and/or those covered by the Seveso II directive as ‘risky industries’.
According to the survey, risk communication provisions generally exist as part of an overall risk management plan. Only a few countries, namely UK, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Netherlands, Poland and Slovenia had or were in the process of developing stand-alone communication plans. The authors of the report recommend that a combination of generic and specific guidelines should be adopted. As an example of good practice, they pointed to the UK, which comprises sector specific risk communication plans, as well as generic advice. Few countries have anything comparable, they say.
Although the results of the survey reveal some common trends, some questions proved more divisive. Equal numbers of respondents indicated that risk communication started at three distinct stages. They were at the pre-assessment and assessment stages; after the assessment stage, when the different risk management options are being considered; and after an option has been chosen.
In analysing the responses, the authors of the report believed the first option to be best practice, noting that a consultation would enable stakeholders, including the public, to provide information that might not otherwise come to light from the experts. ‘It is important, of course, that deciding on how to manage a risk takes into account the views and opinions of stakeholders so that the decision has some prospect of social and political acceptability,’ reads the report.
Indeed the role of stakeholders in risk communication is deemed an important issue, and a sizeable chunk of the survey is dedicated to addressing their role. Specifically, respondents were asked whether they sought out the views of stakeholders and whether those comments were made public. While almost all respondents said that they welcomed the views of stakeholders and civil society organisations, only nine countries said that their plans contained specific provision to identify these actors. As for making stakeholder views public, half of respondents said that their risk management plans included provisions to post public consultations on particular hazards.
According to the authors of the report, creating closer links with stakeholders should not be regarded as a bureaucratic necessity, but one that serves to strengthen risk management generally and the acceptance of a decision about how best to manage a particular risk. ‘Actively encouraging all relevant stakeholders to participate will also avoid the risk that a few stakeholders with vested interests achieve regulatory capture,’ they say.
Given the differences in approaches to and practices of risk communication, the report recommends a structured forum for EU Member States in which to exchange views on good practice. ‘We do not think it is practical or desirable to force harmonisation of risk communication practices on member states, nevertheless, an exchange of experiences about what has worked and what hasn’t in what situations would presumably lead to improved risk communication, better consultation with stakeholders and improved co-ordination, both horizontally and vertically, especially between governments,’ reads the report.
The report goes on to note that while there is significant risk communication expertise in Europe, a forum could benefit from the expertise of some other non-EU countries, such as Australia and Canada.
The report concludes by recommending that European Commission initiate a forum of risk managers and risk communication practitioners, from but not limited to, governments. It would also be useful to invite similar representatives from ‘risky’ industries, suggests the report.
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