Developing Risk Communication

Risk assessment is highly technical and not without controversy. The communication of the results is difficult and decisions made as a result of a risk assessment could be controversial. As noted above, the 1983 NRC depiction did not include a risk communication component. Because of the complexities of a risk assessment, the uncertainty of the results, and the large stakes involved in the decisions, distrust may arise among the various stakeholders and risk analysis professionals.

The National Research Council (1996) addresses these and other problems in an innovative manner. The concept of risk characterization is expanded to include more than the summary of mathematical models and statistical analyses associated with risk assessment, defined by the NRC "red book" (1983). By 1996, representatives of the NRC conceived of risk characterization as a decision-driven activity "to enhance practical understanding and to illuminate practical choices." Thus stakeholders, either directly or through surrogate representatives, should be involved with the risk assessment from the beginning. The expanded risk characterization process thus can incorporate social, behavioral, economic, and ethical aspects of risk. To make the risk characterization relevant to all parties, the NRC not only includes an analytical component of risk characterization, but adds what is termed a "deliberation" component (NRC, 1996). Thus, risk characterization is an "analytical-deliberative" process.

The new expanded definition (NRC, 1996) is as follows: "RC is a synthesis and summary of information about a potentially hazardous situation that addresses the needs and interests of decision makers and affected parties. RC is a prelude to decision making and depends upon an iterative analytical-deliberative process." Thus, risk characterization is no longer in the domain of risk assessment or is no longer in the hands of the sponsors or managers of the risk assessment. Rather, RC becomes a public or political process. In addition to the term "analytical-deliberative," the NRC also introduces the term "iterative." This term is meant to imply that the risk characterization is a give-and-take process between participants and can include an updating of the risk assessment. The above definition represents an all-inclusive process, and seems to imply an ongoing process.

Of particular interest to us in this chapter is the deliberative process as part of the risk characterization. Deliberation involves the exchange of ideas, opinions, reflections on others' opinions, and so forth. Deliberation is defined formally by the NRC (1996) to be "any formal or informal process for communication and for raising and collectively considering issues." The NRC states that the "deliberation frames the analysis and the analysis informs the deliberation" (NRC, 1996). Two phases of the deliberation are specifically identified. First, for a risk assessment, scenarios must be defined at the beginning of the process, consistent with our definition of risk being conditional on well-defined scenarios. All stakeholders should be involved in constructing the scenarios. The second phase is formulation of decisions from the results of the assessment. A very extensive discussion identifies and describes the principles and difficulties of the deliberative process (NRC, 1996).

Disagreement and controversy are inherent in a deliberative process (NRC, 1996). The NRC encourages organizations not to truncate the analytical-deliberative process but, on the other hand, not to delay needed actions under the guise of needing more analysis. In fact, the latter possibility represents a difficulty that needs to be dealt with from the beginning. The NRC gives examples of ongoing risk assessments, where ongoing monitoring might ensure that the assumptions and theories used in the risk assessment are valid and thus the initial decisions are still valid. But often risk assessments are well-defined time-limited projects. The decision-driven processes that NRC advocates would imply the need for decision-matrix tables before the analysis begins. The decision-matrix tables, however, would not restrict possible decisions based on the results. In a practical sense, the risk assessment needs to have a clear demarcation point for decision making. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, it's not over until it's over, but once it's over, it's over. Decisions will be made, and the risk assessment may be updated or repeated years later.

This expanded concept of RC changes the managerial frameworks for risk analysis. We have labeled risk characterization with the initial letters "RC," which happen to be the same as those of risk communication. This dual acronym was not our oversight but was intended to make that point that risk communication is the essence of risk characterization.

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