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Involving citizens - promoting acceptance

20/2013, 01.08.2013

Joint press release of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection, the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, the Robert Koch Institute, and the Federal Environment Agency for the new UMID (Environment and Health Information Service) magazine regarding citizen participation in environmental and health protection

More and more frequently, citizens demand a say in important decision processes. They want to contribute their position and arguments instead of just reading or hearing about resolutions already passed. For this reason, people are more involved nowadays in the planning and decision-making process than in the past, for example in terms of noise pollution, expansion and restructuring of energy supply and nuclear waste storage. Experience shows: plans and projects can benefit from the suggestions and expertise of those affected by such decisions. In addition, public controversies can be avoided or de-emotionalised through citizen involvement at an early stage. In the latest issue of the magazine "Environment and Human Health Information Service", authors affiliated with government agencies, scientific institutions and citizen initiatives present their positions, perspectives and examples on the subject of citizen participation. They illustrate what forms citizen participation can take and how it can be developed. In addition, the articles explain new legal regulations on citizen participation in the area of environment and health. For politicians, project managers and citizens, the various assessments provide wide-ranging practical information on important standards for participation procedures and also on individual methods such as dialog forums orworkshops. 

By means of several legal amendments, public participation has been strengthened in Germany. These amendments include the improvement of the rights of patients which came into effect on 26 February 2013 and the law to facilitate public participation and standardise plan approval procedures from 31 May 2013. In addition, the European Union has declared 2013 the Year of the Citizen. The aim of these measures is to raise awareness of the options for participating in the European legislation process that already exist within the EU. The editorial board of the UMID magazine has taken this as an opportunity to dedicate a separate issue to citizen participation in projects and process relating to “Environment and Health” in Germany.

Apart from the current new laws, the authors also explain existing participation methods, for example in the planning and implementation of noise reduction measures. The EU noise reduction guideline has provided some scope for organising public participation since 2002. The Federal Environment Agency therefore promoted a project testing new citizen participation procedures for noise reduction. In the new UMID, the researchers now for the first time assess the insights and results gained in the course of the project.

Using two examples to illustrate its points, the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) describes concrete experiences with citizen participation in areas of controversial public debate. As part of the German mobile communication programme, the BfS organised public involvement of citizens, non-government organisation, citizen initiatives and groups of physicians in scientific studies on the effects of mobile communication on humans and the environment over several years. Using the example of the Asse Mine, the BfS describes what consequences a lack of public participation can have. Formerly hailed as a model example, the Asse Mine which was entrusted to the BfS as a decommissioning project in 2009 is now seen as the epitome of radioactive waste storage gone wrong. Apart from geological and technical questions of safe decommissioning, the BfS strives to directly involve the worried population in the further process for the safe discontinuation of the nuclear waste repository.

The public is very interested in the health risks potentially posed by food and consumer goods. Scientists of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) which has been commissioned by the government to communicate risk in this area present new and notably dialogue-oriented procedures such as consumer conferences and consumer protection forums. Such communication tools have been used in recent years not only to explain the scientific state of knowledge but especially to establish the information and communication needs of groups of persons affected by sets of given risks. Risk communication was then adapted accordingly to make it as effective as possible. The goal is establishing a participatory dialogue through which citizens gain insight into the criteria used by the authorities in making decisions.

The Environment and Health Information Service (UMID) magazine appears three to four times a year and provides free information on the environment, health and consumer protection. The UMID magazine is jointly published by the institutions involved in the Environment and Health Committee (APUG). Apart from the Federal Ministry for the Environment, the Federal Ministry of Health and the Federal Ministry of Consumer Protection, these institutions include the Federal Environment Agency, the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS), the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment and the Robert Koch Institute.

UMID download: http://www.umweltbundesamt.de/umid/archiv/umid0213.pdf

About the BfR

The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientific institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV). It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.

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