Why dialogue is politic

Hugh Mallet of Enviros highlights the importance of dialogue with stakeholders during contaminated land development

Like many other countries in the industrialised world, the UK is now dealing with many sites of contaminated land arising from our industrial past. Policies and legislation are now being implemented to deal with that legacy which has been brought into focus by government’s targets for the re-development of such sites.

The management of this contaminated land legacy is based upon a risk-based approach. Such an approach should be systematic and objective and it should provide a scientifically sound, robust and defensible basis on which the options for mitigating such risks can be considered. The scientific and technical aspects concerned with the assessment of potential risks associated with land contamination are generally well known and understood by many of the involved parties. However, until now what has been less well recognised, particularly by problem holders and their consultants, is the need for and mechanisms of, communication with all stakeholders in this process.

Stakeholder dialogue

It is important to recognise that when contaminated land projects are initiated, an appropriate degree of attention must be given to dialogue with stakeholders. Such a dialogue must be an inclusive process involving all groups who may have an interest in the outcome of the project. This may run counter to the instincts of some problem holders, but experience has shown that a properly conducted process, involving all stakeholders (including those who are often deliberately excluded) will often maximise the ‘buy-in’ of stakeholders and thus ensure the solutions arrived at will be supported and will survive over the

The principles of effective stakeholder dialogue can be summarised as:

  • identifying who all the stakeholders are,
  • recognising why you are engaged in the process,
  • clearly defining what you are trying to achieve,
  • determining how you will attain those objectives.

    The involvement of stakeholders

    There are several ways in which information between stakeholders can be obtained and exchanged. Each of these has their own particular characteristics and thus influence the potential outcome. It is therefore important that before engaging with stakeholders, consideration must be given to what all parties are likely to want to come away with from any such involvement. So for example, if the problem holder determines they want only to provide information to stakeholders they may choose to provide limited information by means of a simple announcement. They may not wish to gather or listen to any views of the other stakeholders. The results of such ‘involvement’ are likely to depend upon the degree of authority of the problem holder and the perceptions of that authority by stakeholders. However, there is a real possibility that stakeholders may react adversely to such a one-way communication and positions will become polarised as a result.

    Therefore at the commencement of the process it is important to be clear about what objectives there are for both the problem holder and the various stakeholders. This will then enable determination of what type of engagement is most appropriate. So for example, awareness raising or information giving will tend to be one-way communication with specific objectives (e.g. of simply providing the results of a decision or explaining some issue to change prevailing attitudes). Two-way communication becomes an essential element where engagement involves consultation, involvement or partnership. These processes involve an increasing level of engagement with stakeholders.

    There are occasions however when serious consideration must be given to not entering into a dialogue with stakeholders. For example, if a decision that cannot be changed has been made, a ‘consultation’ process will merely raise expectations and will inevitably disappoint. Similarly if there is no time available, no commitment from senior management, or if key stakeholders will not attend, there is no real prospect of success for a process of ‘dialogue’.

    Risk assessment

    The process of risk assessment in contaminated land projects is now well developed, understood and delivered by the many specialists involved in the area. The use of simple tools has improved consistency in qualitative assessment and the continuing development of numerical systems has lead to widespread acceptance (at least in the industry) of the value and validity of quantitative risk assessments.

    However, there is a common failing within problem holders and their consultants in understanding that this stepwise process of risk assessment, which to us appears straightforward, and scientifically robust, is not so logical to many stakeholders. It does appear to be a commonly adopted position that because our ‘expert’ assessment shows the level of risk to be ‘acceptably low’ this should be automatically and universally accepted by other stakeholders (who are necessarily less ‘expert’ than ourselves). In adopting this stance, we are failing to recognise that factors other than the technical assessment can have a significant influence on people’s perception of risk. In fact ‘perception is reality’ [Sniffer 1999].

    Risk perception

    People with different social, economic and cultural backgrounds living in different places will perceive risks in different ways which reflect their own particular knowledge and their environment. That is, people’s response to a particular hazard depends upon their perception of the hazard and their knowledge/awareness of both themselves, and ‘society’ to deal with that hazard.

    The risk perceived by people may also reflect: the potential for the hazard to be controlled, the potential for catastrophe and their ‘dread’ of that hazard. So for example if a site has radioactive contamination associated with it, the perceived level of risk is likely to be high, reflecting people’s dread of radioactivity. Such dread reflects for example the known effects of fallout from nuclear explosions and visions of Hiroshima. The less familiar people are with a hazard and the less control they have over the potential for exposure, the greater the perception of the risk.

    Perception may also be affected by whether or not exposure to the risk is voluntary (when people are more prepared to accept risk, or their perception of such voluntary risk is less than when they have no choice about the matter). For example the risk of knowingly ingesting known carcinogens directly into your lungs several times a day is perceived to be lower by smokers because this activity is undertaken voluntarily. This must be contrasted, for example, with the circumstances where residents are told that they have been living on the site of historic contamination where say polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) may be present at concentrations above background levels. The combination of the dread associated with the term ‘carcinogenic’ and the involuntary nature of the exposure will serve to increase the perception of this risk well above the level of any technical assessment.

    We must therefore recognise that risk assessment carried out by experts can not be ‘absolute’ because:

  • experts themselves may be biased or motivated by their own values/self interests,
  • this expert assessment takes no account of the beliefs of ‘the public’.

    What often takes place in the contaminated land debate is that the expert defines the objective risk and then tries to align the perception of the public and the regulator with this version of reality (or ‘the truth’). As described above, often no recognition is made by the expert that factors other than the technical estimation of risk influences how people perceive and behave in the face of particular hazards.

    Decisions taken with regard to a particular risk are not driven only by calculation of probability. For example, relative estimates of risk have not figured at all in the recent ‘debate’ about GMOs, and a major factor in the opposition of this technology is a lack of trust in those ‘in control’ of the technology or regulating the risks. It has also been shown that an important element in the perception of risk is the particular personal disposition of an individual – i.e. people perceive risk as more or less difficult depending on the way in which they see the world (e.g. whether they are fatalists, egalitarians etc).

    So it is important that we recognise this complex series of issues which influence the perception of risk, because if we don’t, we will not be able to develop an effective means of communicating that risk. The key is communication which enables people to make an informed choice regarding exposure to a particular hazard. Risk communication should not be seen as top down (i.e. expert to public) but as a constructive dialogue between all parties.

    We must also understand that the media have a key role in the public perception of risk. This is because the media are likely to influence judgements about risk much more than people’s objective assessment of the ‘facts’. The media may or may not directly influence what someone thinks, but the amount of coverage can make issues appear significant/important. Social amplification of risks may also occur when an event associated with a hazard interacts with the psychological, social and cultural make-up of people, raising (or reducing) the perception of risk and affecting how people then behave. Some researchers have noticed that in some cases, increased coverage actually leads to an increase in factual information (and thus people’s ability to make ‘proper’ risk judgements). Conversely, the use of headlines and photographs can disproportionately affect the perception of the hazard and the emotional tone of the article.

    It is clear that risk communication involves two elements:

  • the message about the hazard (its likelihood, potential costs and benefits),
  • the trust people have in those giving the message.

    Failure in risk communication is usually caused by public distrust in both the makers of policy, and officers of companies/regulatory bodies, due to problems of credibility. Experts presenting technical numerical information about risk which discounts the public perception of that risk as ‘irrational’ become distrusted by the public who view them as arrogant and lackeys of vested interests. It is also important to understand that it is much easier to loose someone’s trust than to build it. Once trust is lost, it is very difficult to regain. The key elements in trust are the competence/credibility of the people putting the argument. People’s perception of this is often significantly influenced by the track record of the organisation/expert. It should be recognised that there has been a general decline in the trust of scientists since the 1950s [DDT, thalidomide, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, BSE etc.].

    Of course, we must also understand the potential hazards associated with contaminated land and their associated risks can also be used by objectors to particular schemes/projects. Such groups of people also have a vested interest, often summarised as ‘not in my backyard’. Increasingly land contamination and potential risks to people’s health is being used by objectors as a stick to beat the developer/local authority with in their opposition to a proposed development scheme.

    Experience has shown that to those involved in the assessment/redevelopment of contaminated land, importance must be attached to both the technical assessment of risk and also to the concerns of all stakeholders and their perceptions.

    In summary:

  • we must get it right at the beginning (ie both the assessment of risk and the communication strategy),
  • we must recognise that stakeholder concerns are ‘real’ – we cannot just discount levels of perceived risk and steam roller through our scientific judgement,
  • we must do all we can to be (and appear to be) credible and trustworthy,
  • we must ensure that we are able to properly communicate the risks that face people and the environment to all of the stakeholders involved.

    Further reading

    Dialogue for Sustainability (Training Manual). Environment Council, 2002.
    Communicating understanding of contaminated land. Sniffer (1999).
    Risk and modern society. Lofstedt and Frewer (1991).
    Risk communication, a guide to regulatory practice. Ilgra (1998)
    Risk: Analysis, perception and management. Royal Society (1992).

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