In many jurisdictions, SoE assessment or sustainable development reports are now mandated by statute and regulation. In others, there may be a strong policy context that has led to a government undertaking or participating in an assessment as a voluntary initiative. In some, the assessment/reporting programme may be part of a larger performance monitoring and evaluation programme for the government as a whole, across all departments. While such requirements may initiate the process for an assessment, you should also take a broader view. Begin to think about the potential uses for the assessment. What impact it might have on policy and planning, and what steps should be taken to ensure that the right people are willing to pay attention to the findings of the assessment.
By their nature, most SoE/integrated environmental assessments are not detailed scientific assessments. They may, however, lead to more attention being paid to problem areas, and they may recommend a more detailed scientific assessment of root causes and downstream effects. The result of an assessment can shift the mood of the public, and lead to political pressure. It may educate a wide range of audiences on key issues, and as a result it may trigger more detailed studies that are more directly linked to specific issues and decisions.
It is often an underlying assumption of reporting that good information will lead to good decisions. But while good information is necessary, it does not follow that decision-makers will act on it. Decision-makers are often quite well informed, but their priorities and intentions may be different from yours. The challenge is to take proactive steps to ensure that your assessment doesn’t sit on a bookshelf once it is done, but that it provides good input to decision making. Your assessment will lead to recommendations for actions that may require changes in policy and practice by the government. Consider from the outset how the findings from your assessment might be used, and how the priorities you identify can become the priorities of your government and your country.
An impact strategy begins with articulating the changes sought as a result of the assessment. This provides purpose beyond simply following through on the mandated requirement for the assessment. For those conducting an IEA for the first time, it may not be possible to articulate a specific policy-related change that might be necessary as there is no prior assessment which identified priority issues. For first timers, seeking better linkages between the findings of the report and formal decision-making process in government (e.g., departmental strategic plans, policy, priorities, budgets) may be the main objective. Those who are conducting an assessment for the second time or more might be able to think more specifically about issues and necessary policy changes identified from the first process.
Regardless of the number of times you’ve participated in an assessment, it is important to have a good understanding of several factors.
- Why has the assessment been mandated? What is the political and bureaucratic context in which it is taking place? A legislative mandate as articulated in Module 2 is powerful: having such a mandate makes it less likely other influences will prevent you from initiating and completing your report (although limited budgets may be a constraint). Government auditors and civil society should help ensure that the legislation is followed. However, once the report is done there is often no obligation to address its findings, so it is equally important to learn who supports the practice of assessments, and where there might be opposition to the process. These people may be key bureaucrats in your own department, or in other important government or non-government agencies. They may be elected or appointed representatives who sit on influential committees. Those who are already supportive are prime candidates to become champions of the findings. They should be briefed on the process from the beginning, informed and even engaged in the process, and be key recipients of presentations and policy briefs on the findings. Those who have concerns about the whole concept and practice of assessments may become detractors—either critical of the report, or focusing attention away from the report and on to other government matters. Consider how you might best build bridges with them and there might be common ground.
- If SoE reports or assessments have been prepared in the past in your country, what happened to them? What priorities for action were recommended? Were they acted upon? Why (or why not)? Barriers to use of previous assessments may continue to be barriers; but by identifying them ahead of time, ways to overcome them may be identified.
- Who is involved in the assessment? In advance of starting the IEA process, there may be participants that can add legitimacy to the assessment. In some cases, the participation of external experts and agencies, including UNEP, can be helpful to ensure that the process is respected.
- What is taking place within the current national political or bureaucratic context that might:
– prevent more senior bureaucrats and key decision-makers from responding to the findings, or
– enable them to apply the findings in support of a particular agenda.
- What is taking place within the country more generally that might provide a window of opportunity to gain public attention for the findings? For example, if there is a debate going on now about health impacts of air pollution, think about how the findings can contribute to that debate. You might personally be interested in an issue such as water pollution, but by looking for the connection to the issue on the top of today’s public and political agenda, you could promote your assessment in the context of the issue “cycle” which may be the air pollution agenda.
There are many ways to get a sense of the external political and public environment in which the assessment is taking place.
- Review not only the relevant statutes and regulations that govern the assessment, but also review the debates in parliament and parliamentary committee minutes. Find the background white/green papers, or other relevant policy documents.
- Investigate with current/former bureaucrats their recollection of the process involved in securing the mandate to do the assessment.
- Review current debates in parliament. What are the hot button issues among the members?
- Monitor political and social coverage in the national media and what they think is worth reporting?
- Chat with colleagues in other departments about what the key issues are that they are addressing.
- Attend meetings of non-government organizations (NGOs) and community-based organizations within and outside of the environment sector. Find out what their priorities are. Hold focus groups to identify user needs and interests.
- Look at polling data. If you have the resources, commission a public opinion poll, or work with the government’s communications department to commission a poll to find out what is important at the present time for the citizens of your country.
Be aware that if your assessment process serves only to produce a report simply to comply with a legal or policy instruction, then the impact—the ability to have the findings used to effect change—will be severely limited.
See Exercise 3.2.3 ...