Warning Project workshops are designed to try and help organization get down to the core dilemmas, tensions and barriers preventing the effective communication of risk. But as much as we pride ourselves at looking past the communication product to the root decision making of the communication process, I have to be honest, more often than not participants reflect their exasperation at a much more basic problem: “Look, we know what we should say, but we just can’t it approved fast enough!”.
For large, complex organizations approvals are never fast, and invariably, cumbersome. An expert and their communication counterpart will develop a press release or set of media lines and launch it into the labyrinth of the bureaucracy. As for value added, a director may find a grammatical error, a regional representative may nuance the tone, the head of the organization may develop cold feet and let it sit on their desk for a few days. Approval processes reflect the measured, deliberate, cautious way in which organizations behave.
This is all fine and good, until something serious occurs. Then, suddenly, that measure, that deliberation, that caution, runs up against a risk communication imperative that is moving at a very different speed. The fourteen layers of review and discussion which in “peace time” helps support carefully thought out decision making, in “war time” can quickly render an organization ineffective in helping to protect people. More seriously, the breakdown in timely approvals can represent a dereliction of duty.
So what to do?
Most strategies to handle approvals during acute events focus on simplification. Layers are eliminated, time at each stage is reduced, responsibility for the process may be elevated to help speed it along. These approaches can often help, but rarely solves the problem. The size and scope of information demand during serious events has always been overwhelming. But in the current communication context, the challenge is staggering. The so-called “State of the Art” requires a very different way of thinking.
In 2002, the Dutch city of Drachten adopted a very unusual strategy to deal with increasing traffic related accidents in its downtown core. Building from the shared space theories of Hans Monderman it began to remove all of its traffic signs, lines, and lights. No more stop signs, no more lane markers, no more sidewalks. If the strategy was odd, what then happened was even stranger. Accidents went down. The risk to pedestrians, cyclists and others was reduced. The elimination of the very things dreamt up to try and keep people safe, ended up making people safer.
The principle is a simple one. Without all of the traffic signs and markers, everyone using the space – motorists, cyclists, pedestrians — had no choice but to take on a different level of responsibility. Average speeds went down, direct eye contact went up, awareness of the shared space transformed.
In the years since, the model has been applied countless times across Europe and elsewhere but advocates have found that it doesn’t necessarily work everywhere. My question, could the idea offer something as we think of how to tackle the approval process challenge?
Now I know what you’re thinking: is urban planning really relevant to emergency risk comms? Humour me, and imagine this.
An emerging risk is identified, people are potentially at risk. The responsible subject matter expert sits down with the responsible emergency risk communication expert and, together, they work out a warning to those potentially exposed. Then, that warning is communicated. No bureaucratic labyrinth, no endless back and forth, no pointless wordsmithing. Those who have the information, give it to those who need it. In a timely fashion that better reflects the modern communication landscape.
Stealing a page from Hans Monderman, those two experts would probably “reduce their speed” – taking care to get the details right. They would increase “direct eye contact” – with their colleagues and their stakeholders. Their “situational awareness would be transformed” through a better understanding of the context in which the communication would then exist.
I’m not arguing the approach would work in communicating policy changes, program announcements, funding decisions. But for risk related information, applying the shared space concept delegates responsibility to the two people who should have it. Yes, mistakes may be made. Yes, noses may be out of joint. But those are problems officials are likely to prioritize, not the citizens they serve.
Some might argue that an approval process driven by the need to communicate instead of the need to preserve organizational control and reputation is just too radical. Thing is, even the best systems are failing miserably. I think it’s time to start removing those stop signs.