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Collaborate, don’t seek agreement for YOUR decision

i Nov 17th 2 Comments by

An important, and a novel idea for the nuclear sector, on community engagement can be found deep within a weighty tome on risk-assessed decision-making produced by the US independent watchdog, the Government Accountability Office (GAO). It speaks directly to what is required for the UK GDF siting process.

The GAO performs a similar function as the UK’s National Audit Office (NAO). It’s recently published Environmental Liabilities report is critical of the US’ Department of Energy (DoE) for still failing to introduce risk-informed decision-making into its environmental cleanup plans. With a US$600 billion liability, which is ever-rising, the GAO believes the DoE is not doing enough to account for human health and environmental risks within a finite budget.

More importantly from our perspective, is a fascinating section on community engagement and involvement in the decision-making process. This is not just a US issue, but is relevant to every nuclear agency across the world. And is particularly relevant in the UK, in relation to the formation of Community Partnerships and how decisions are taken in evaluating and determining a potential GDF site.

The GAO make clear that there will always be differing opinions within local communities, and between different stakeholder groups. Currently, nuclear agencies make a decision and then try to get support for that decision. This is fraught with difficulties, polarises and generally antagonises everyone, and can lead to lengthy (and costly) legal and appeals processes.

The GAO’s ‘radical’ idea is to engage communities and stakeholders in co-designing a decision-making framework. This recognises that not everyone is going to like the final decision, but if the process for arriving at that decision has been discussed and agreed in advance by all the key parties, there will be more legitimacy in the outcome. The GAO also notes that decisions often require a high-degree of specialised knowledge, and can’t easily be left to those with limited technical understanding. And that is the reason why a decision-making framework that is widely accepted across the stakeholder spectrum is required.

Key points the GAO makes include:

  • stakeholder involvement is critical to sound decision-making, though the specific type and extent of that involvement should vary depending on the decision being made
  • the most appropriate role for stakeholder groups representing members of the public, such as nonprofit organizations and community groups, is likely to be one of helping to inform the decision, rather than of ultimately making it. For example, such stakeholders may help define the problem, define objectives, or identify options
  • the goals of engaging stakeholder groups representing members of the public … should be to incorporate their viewpoints and to seek their acceptance of the decision-making process as transparent and legitimate
  • a more realistic and helpful approach is to seek these stakeholders’ input and buy-in to the process by providing meaningful opportunities for engagement early in the process, communicating throughout the process, and providing transparent, understandable information about the science and rationale behind the final decision
  • involving stakeholders in this step is important because they may provide important information and insights that could affect how a problem is characterized
  • because stakeholders may have differing views about the nature and extent of a problem and the scope of the decision that should be made to address it, their input during this step can help build confidence that the right problem is being addressed.

With complex issues, generating conflicting opinions and emotions, it is not always possible to seek consensus for every decision. We can only resolve this problem through creating a decision-making process which commands widespread legitimacy.

In the UK GDF siting process context, this suggests that RWM should not develop a community-based decision-making framework on their own, and then try to get everyone to agree to it. They should start discussions with the community sector on jointly developing a decision-making framework that commands a high degree of ‘legitimacy’, so that decisions which are eventually made will stand public and critical scrutiny.

This is how democracy works. We set up rules within which we delegate decision-making. In the UK there is a widespread view that our democratic processes at every level are failing us and need renewal. As GDFWatch has previously argued, the GDF consent-based site selection process could not only deliver a repository, but also help reform our political and social decision-making processes. The GAO model offers RWM and the UK a credible way forward to achieving this.

Comments

  1. Phil Davies
    17th November 2019 at 1:11 pm

    I agree that transparency and the engagement of the community are important. However, for the UK case we aren’t starting from a blank sheet of paper. The GDF project has been designated a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project. This means that we already have requirements for meaningful public consultation under the Development Control Order Process. This is a ‘given’. Beyond that, the geological disposal policy requires some from of test of public support. There’s already a risk of confusion between the GDF test of public support and the DCO consultation process, where the developer needs to prove responsiveness. Logically there would be one integrated process. I suggest that it would be appropriate to finesse these requirements into one process that works for a local community rather than embark on a new decision making framework.

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  2. DJ Lee
    17th November 2019 at 9:04 pm

    The confusion between the test of community support for a GDF under the Siting Process and The Working with Communities Policy that RWM are required to prove and the near-identical investigation of support for a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project which happens to be a GDF (or GDI) that developers other than RWM need to undertake is less confusing once one recognises that any developer has the same rights under the Planning Act as RWM will have but without the additional requirements of The Siting Process and The Working with Communities Policy.
    Other developers’ talks with communities can not trigger Government Community Investment (The £1m – £2.5m pa promised in the 2014 White Paper).
    I think the “one process” desired already exists; At-least for those other than RWM. Any Person is entitled to apply for Development Consent. That person’s (the developer’s) requirements are laid-down in primary legislation. The “Person” can be anyone; a company, a Parish Council, a Landowner, anyone. The developer is not required to be a Site Licence Company and The ONR does not Regulate the Application process.
    A developer can apply for a Development Consent Order far quicker and much simpler than RWM can. I predict County Councils may Apply directly to The Secretary of State without involvement of RWM to reap the rewards a GDF would bring sooner rather than later.

    Reply

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