There is widespread agreement in the risk management sector that existing approaches to community engagement fail to generate interest, trust, learning, or the behavioural changes needed to increase resilience. Despite growing acceptance that community engagement is a prerequisite for resilience, risk managers and organizations remain locked into a paradigm in which engagement is synonymous with education. Education is not engagement, and there is growing acceptance that education-based activities are ineffective. This necessitates the development of alternate approaches, and the CEDRR project is one such effort. While the message that ‘education is not engagement’ is beginning to be accepted by practitioners – evident in the changed language emanating from government – there remains a significant barrier to such engagements: there are few alternatives and even fewer empirically tested alternatives that can replace education-based practices. This lack of ‘proven’ alternatives inhibits governments, organizations, and individuals from breaking from existing, failing practices, and is the basis of this project: ‘Community Engagement for Disaster Risk Reduction’.
This project will test an approach to disaster risk reduction that draws on recent social science. Specifically, it incorporates research of learning, knowledge transfer, knowledge communication, expertise, power, and participation to develop an alternative approach for the agencies and organizations involved in disaster risk reduction in Victoria, Australia. Existing community engagement is developed by experts and disseminated to publics, using ‘engagement’ and ‘participation’ as tools to convince the public to accept expert planning and management. In such contexts, efforts to partner with publics are disingenuous because the experts are in control, have a predetermined objective, and dictate the ways that publics can contribute. In addition to being common, this approach is also ineffective. Similarly, the opposite ‘bottom-up’ approach is equally fraught because of its detachment from the practitioners with expertise and from the bureaucrats who understand government operations. Neither top-down nor bottom-up risk reduction is likely to succeed. Instead, Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) requires a collaborative approach in which both experts and publics are necessary but insufficient partners.
This project is led by Dr. Brian Cook from the School of Geography at the University of Melbourne. It involves collaboration with Victoria’s State Emergency Service (SES), the Red Cross, and the City of Melbourne (still in discussions).
The CEDRR Approach
The CEDRR approach is a mixture of face-to-face engagement and online app, which is designed to ‘flatten’ the power-relationships that tend to characterise risk management. Our hypothesis is that egalitarian partnerships are more likely to generate interest and result in risk reduction activities amongst publics; simultaneously, we believe that those egalitarian engagements are likely to alter the perceptions of risk managers. We have developed an interview template that uses an online app. This app (developed by a team from the University of Melbourne Learning Environments) is designed to collect information from the interviewees, while also growing and adapting to the data generated. In this way, the public has control over the topics and range of available answers available to subsequent users.
The engagement uses a risk reduction ‘Cupboard Door Poster’ CEDRR_Emergency_cupboard_poster, which has emergency contact information, advice from emergency services, and space to draw emergency escape plans. The engagement also asks publics to help ‘spread the word’, using CEDRR_Card, Facebook Posts, emails, and Tweets. Each respondent has a unique identifying number, and we are able to map and trace the circulation of that number, which may show us how risk reduction knowledge circulates within a community. Ideally, we may also be able to uncover what actions the circulation of that knowledge prompts.