25 March 2014

Would you do health impact assessments if you didn't have to?

Carrot and Stick by Bruce Thomson
There's an interesting article by Elsa João and Anna McLauchlan in the latest issue of Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal. They asked 187 Scottish Strategic Environmental Impact Assessment (SEA) practitioners "if SEA was not compulsory, would you do it?"

This made me wonder about this question in relation to HIA. In many, if not most settings, there is not a requirement that makes HIA's use compulsory. For most HIA practitioners this question is not a hypothetical one. We encounter it in relation to every HIA.

Some recent  research I was involved in found that only 7% of HIAs conducted in Australia and New Zealand between 2005 and 2009 were done to meet a legal or regulatory requirement.

The overwhelming majority of Scottish survey respondents said they would do SEA even if it was not compulsory. In HIA practice we rarely have to wonder, which is a luxury in some ways. Most HIAs are done freely and to learn something. The link between voluntary involvement and the ability to learn something from HIAs is not theoretical. As my colleagues and I found in this study, the extent to which participants had a degree of choice or control over their involvement in an HIA had an impact on their receptiveness to learning from the HIA process and acting on its recommendations.

Interestingly, even though the survey was looking at SEA in Scotland where its use is mandated, the themes identified through the survey resonate with those we encounter in promoting HIA's use:

  • the perception that a similar process are already being done;
  • a lack of resources;
  • the need for a ‘leaner process’; and
  • the difficulties that can arise when external conditions or many decisions have already been determined.
The article is well worth reading, here's the abstract:
Strategic environmental assessment (SEA) is undertaken in more than 60 countries worldwide. Support to the SEA process can range from formal legal requirements to voluntary ‘ad hoc’ approaches. In the cases where SEA is legally required, such as in Europe where the SEA Directive sets a framework for SEA legislation in 28 countries, practitioners may engage with SEA but in a reluctant way. This paper reports on a unique survey of 203 key people responsible for implementing the SEA legislative requirement in Scotland. The majority (53%) of the 187 practitioners who answered the hypothetical question ‘If SEA was not compulsory, would you do it?’ said ‘Yes’. However, results suggest that the responses were much nuanced. Practitioners were asked to explicate their reasoning and, irrespective of whether the answer was ‘yes’ or ‘no’, common themes were evident in accompanying remarks. This paper enables reflection on reasons for acceptance or rejection of the SEA process by discussing: the perception that a similar process to SEA is already being done, the problem with lack of resources, the call for a ‘leaner process’ and the difficulties of undertaking SEA when conditions are already determined at a higher ‘tier’.