Thomas A. Birkland
Natural disasters pose important problems for societies and governments. Governments are charged with making policies to protect public safety. Large disasters, then, can reveal problems in government policies designed to protect the public from the effects of such disasters. Large disasters can serve as focusing events, a term used to describe large, sudden, rare, and harmful events that gain a lot of attention from the public and from policy makers. Such disasters highlight problems and, as the public policy literature suggests, open windows of opportunity for policy change. However, as a review of United States disaster policy from 1950 through 2015 shows, change in disaster policy is often, but not always, driven by major disasters that act as focusing events. But the accumulation of experience from such disasters can lead to learning, which can be useful if later, even more damaging and attention-grabbing events arise.
Andrea Sarzynski and Paolo Cavaliere
Public participation in environmental management, and more specifically in hazard mitigation planning, has received much attention from scholars and practitioners. A shift in perspective now sees the public as a fundamental player in decision making rather than simply as the final recipient of a policy decision. Including the public in hazard mitigation planning brings widespread benefits. First, communities gain awareness of the risks they live with, and thus, this is an opportunity to empower communities and improve their resilience. Second, supported by a collaborative participation process, emergency managers and planners can achieve the ultimate goal of strong mitigation plans.
Although public participation is highly desired as an instrument to improve hazard mitigation planning, appropriate participation techniques are context dependent and some trade-offs exist in the process design (such as between representativeness and consensus building). Designing participation processes requires careful planning and an all-around consideration of the representativeness of stakeholders, timing, objectives, knowledge, and ultimately desired goals to achieve. Assessing participation also requires more consistent methods to facilitate policy learning from diverse experiences. New decision-support tools may be necessary to gain widespread participation from laypersons lacking technical knowledge of hazards and risks.