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Create confidence through transparency and participation!

28/2001, 13.09.2001

BgVV research project on risk communication up and running

It was not the controversies about the risks from BSE cases in Germany, of tributyl tin (TBT) in football jerseys or from plasticisers in children's toys for consumers that first demonstrated that the public authorities, the general public and industry perceive and assess risks differently. "The debate about the right assessment of risks and the lack of confidence amongst the general public vis a vis official measures for the management and prevention of such risks, is a clear expression of the need for risk communication", says Dr. Rolf Hertel, head of the BgVV research project "development of a multiphase procedure for risk communication" at the opening workshop on this subject at BgVV on 12 and 13 September 2001.

The foundation stone for the recently launched research project was laid in September of last year when international representatives of industry, politics, academia, public authorities and consumer organisations came together on behalf of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in order to look together for ways and means of achieving more effective risk communication (cf. bgvv Press release No. 20/2000). A practical guide for risk communication was considered to be a suitable orientation aid in an area in which rigid procedures were not a viable alternative because of the diversity of content. A guide of this kind is now to be prepared within the framework of the research project together with the Academy for Evaluating Technological Consequences in Baden-Württemberg for the federal authorities. The project is part of the "environment and health" programme of the federal government which is under the aegis of the Federal Ministries for Health (BMG) and for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Reactor Safety (BMU). The goal of the research project is to elaborate fundamental and organisational improvements in risk communication whilst considering the interests of consumers, industry and the state.

Risk communication is considered to be a targeted exchange of information between people, political institutions, public authorities, companies, associations, interest groups, experts, scientists and the media. The subject matters of communication are the damage potential of a risk (what damage will occur in conjunction with the health/environment damaging event), the remaining uncertainties (what cannot be estimated, what don't we know), the importance of the risk, and the measures and actions taken to reduce, limit and regulate the risk.

It is not the goal of risk communication to increase the acceptance of risks by citizens. It is far more a matter of putting across the different views of the parties involved in the risk communication process in a dialogue and in this way to render transparent the options for handling a risk and the decision in favour of an option. This shows that risk communication is not a closed process but must accompany the handling of risks from identification over assessment up to management by political circles and public authorities. By means of an open and ongoing dialogue of the public authorities with interest groups and their representatives (stakeholders), there will be increased understanding for the opposing positions. If the communication process is successful, then it will be feasible for differing views about the risk to be brought into line with each other as far as possible.

Besides the guide on risk communication, tools are to be developed in the research project which will enable public authorities to more easily implement in practice the principles formulated in the guide. They also include training programmes for staff involved in risk communication. A definitive expert report will then assess whether official risk communication can be shaped more successfully by these means. The research project on the "Development of a multiphase procedure for risk communication" runs up to December 2002 and will end with the publication of a final report.

The two day workshop at BgVV served to render the project more transparent already in the initial phase for representatives of public authorities and to extend the competence of the participants in the field of risk communication.


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