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Public access to information

Risk assessment and characterisation is often left to experts who are entrusted to make decisions that benefit the general public. However, disputes remain over the mechanism and extent to which ordinary citizens can participate in the risk deliberation process.

Risk characterisation is a product of good deliberation and effective analysis. Stern and Fineberg (1996) identify that analytic-deliberative process should include explicit attention to problem formulation and include feedback between all parties.

It is important that all parties represented their viewpoints and concerns have been taken into account. They go on to describe the following five key considerations.

Getting the science right

The underlying analysis must meet high scientific standards in multiple terms including:

  • Measurement
  • Analytic methods
  • Databases used
  • Plausibility of assumptions
  • Respectfulness of both the magnitude and the character of uncertainty
  • Taking into consideration limitations that may have been placed on the analysis because of the level of effort judged appropriate for informing the decision

Getting the right science

The analysis must also address the significant risk-related concerns of public officials and the spectrum of interested and affected parties. These may include risks to health, economic wellbeing, and ecological and social values. Analytic priorities need to be set so as to emphasise the issues most relevant to the decision.

Getting the right participation

The analytic-deliberative process should have sufficiently broad participation to ensure that:

  • The important, decision-relevant information enters the process
  • All important perspectives are considered
  • The parties’ legitimate concerns about inclusiveness and openness are met

Getting the participation right

The analytic-deliberative process should also satisfy the decision makers and interested and affected parties that it is responsive to their needs:

  • That their information, viewpoints, and concerns have been adequately represented and taken into account
  • That they have been adequately consulted
  • That their participation has been able to affect the way risk problems are defined and understood

Developing an accurate, balanced and informative synthesis

The risk characterisation should present the state of knowledge, uncertainty, and disagreement about the risk situation to reflect the range of relevant knowledge and perspectives. This needs to satisfy the parties to a decision that they have been adequately informed within the limits of available knowledge.

An accurate and balanced synthesis treats the limits of scientific knowledge (that is, the various kinds of uncertainty, indeterminacy, and ignorance) with an appropriate mixture of analytic and deliberative techniques.

Further reading

Further details of Stern and Fineburg’s analysis can be found in the following:

National Research Council (1996) ‘Summary’ in Understanding Risk: Informing Decisions in a Democratic Society [online]. available from https://www.nap.edu/read/5138/chapter/2#6

Your task

Can you think of one example when governing bodies shared the analysis of potential risks successfully with all echelons of society and another when they favoured the views exclusively of elites?

Why do you think this was the case?


National Research Council (1996) Understanding Risk: Informing Decisions in a Democratic Society. National Academies Press.

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Foundations in Resilience, Security and Emerging Technology

Coventry University