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Abstract Evaluations of health impact assessments (HIAs) have highlighted its potential impacts on decision-making, implementation and broader factors such as intersectoral collaboration (Harris-Roxas et al. 2011, Harris-Roxas et al. 2012b, Wismar et al. 2007). Tensions often arise between stakeholders about the outcomes of HIAs however. Studies that have looked at this have found that there are:
- Often disagreements between stakeholders about the perceived purpose of the HIA and what form it should take (Harris-Roxas et al. 2012a, Harris-Roxas & Harris 2011); and
- The perception that an HIA’s recommendations could have been identified through normal planning and implementation processes and that the HIA didn’t necessarily have to be conducted (Harris-Roxas et al. 2011). In other words, that an HIA’s recommendations are “common sense”.
The study’s findings highlight that while many of the recommendations and distal impacts of an HIA (Harris-Roxas & Harris 2012) could notionally be anticipated through common sense analysis, in practice they are rarely foreseen. A similar phenomenon has been demonstrated in other fields such as organisational psychology and management (Orrell 2007, Watts 2011). This study also highlights the critical role that learning plays in impact assessment practice (Morgan 2012, Bond & Pope 2012). This learning takes three forms: technical, conceptual and participatory (Harris & Harris-Roxas 2010, Glasbergen 1999). Learning may also take place at individual, organisational and social levels. This suggests that “common sense” is anything but common in the real world of planning and decision-making, and for good reasons. What seems obvious in hindsight is rarely apparent in advance. HIA, as a structured process for looking at under-considered impacts, has an important role to play in moving beyond common sense towards broader learning and more nuanced analyses of alternatives.
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