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It’s a people thing – introducing a written account of a stakeholder workshop August 16, 2012blythemclennanLeave a comment

Some months have passed since a wide range of stakeholders came together in a workshop at RMIT University in March to talk about shared responsibility and disaster resilience. The ideas and opinions voiced at that workshop have stayed with me and continue to shape how I think about the research I’m doing. In particular, the workshop helped me to see how crucial it is to examine connections between responsibility, control and agency. It also helped me to understand more deeply that sharing responsibility is also very much about sharing control. This is a theme that I want to explore in a presentation I’m giving at the AFAC/Bushfire CRC annual conference at the end of this month in Perth. I’m still preparing it now but a central point will be the need for public agencies to ‘make space for community’, or more accurately civil society, if a philosophy of sharing responsibility is really going to underpin the way we ‘do’ emergency management. This implies that significant change may lie ahead in the way that public agencies do some of their core business.

As Andrew Wilson (Manager Fire Knowledge and Learning, Fire Division at the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment) reminded us at the March workshop, ‘government’ and ‘community’ are abstract entities. It is not these abstract entities but people who ultimately share responsibility and control. Thus, at one level ‘making space for communities’ is really about the people who work in and around emergency management considering how they might personally embody a philosophy of sharing responsibility (and control) in their own practices, relationships and areas of influence. I count myself and other disaster management researchers amongst this group. Of course, structures and institutions shape practice: but again it is people who collectively bring change to even the largest structures and institutions. This entry is a rather long winded way of introducing a written account of the March workshop.

The account shows a rich, diverse and healthy discussion around central issues like control and agency. What is most compelling for me is that the face-to-face nature of the discussion energized the exchange and brought the issues down to the ground. Woven into the discourse were case studies and personal accounts by ‘real’ people from across a spectrum of stakeholders. I was pleased to hear one of the speakers – John Schauble, Manager Policy & Planning with the Victorian Office of the Fire Services Commissioner – remind us that he stood in front of us as an individual, a CFA volunteer and a community member as well as a ‘government official’. The face-to-face discussion at the workshop helped me to realize that while the much-talked-about principle of ‘Shared Responsibility’ comes to us from high level inquiry reports and policy statements, ‘sharing responsibility’ – that is, the process of putting such a principle into practice is much more personal. It is really all about how we – the people who live and work with risk – work together. Categories:Ideas and OpinionsTags:Disaster resilience, Shared responsibility principle, Sharing Responsibility project

From risk to resilience? Reframing shared responsibility in Australian disaster policy May 3, 2012blythemclennanLeave a comment

In April, a group of Australian researchers including myself, presented a special session on shared responsibility at the International Association of Wildland Fire’s 3rd Human Dimensions of Wildland Fire Conference, Seattle 17-19 April. The presentation that I gave focused on how the idea of shared responsibility has changed in national disaster policy – particularly through its recent linkage to the idea of “disaster resilience”. Categories:Articles and ResearchTags:Bushfire, National Strategy for Disaster Resilience, Sharing Responsibility project

One of the reasons we set up this blog was to provide a place where people could share further information on issues that came up during a one-day workshop about the topic of sharing responsibility for disaster resilience. To get the acknowledgements out of the way early – John Handmer and I (from RMIT’s Centre for Risk and Community Safety in the School of Mathematical and Geospatial Sciences) organised the workshop as a part of a research project ‘Sharing Responsibility’. It was supported by the Bushfire CRC and NCCARF’s Emergency Management network and held at RMIT University’s city campus in Melbourne on Thursday 29th March. The workshop brought a wide range of people together from different sectors to discuss challenges and opportunities for governments, communities, business and the not-for-profit sector to work more closely together to manage risks and build community resilience to disasters in Australia.

Photo by Nathan Maddock, Bushfire CRC
There were many, many highlights throughout the day. I know that a particular highlight for John, for example, was hearing the words “the revolution has begun” spoken confidently and meaningfully by a senior Victorian State government policy maker, Mark Duckworth. Mark was responding to a passionate call made by community activist Kate Lawrence, who asked us to consider the systemic change needed to reinvigorate civil society in Australia today. Along a similar line, for me one of the many highlights was seeing mild and pleased amazement on people’s faces as they talked about hearing a range of people who work in government talk tangibly about significantly new ways of thinking and working in a way that was both thoughtful and thought-provoking. Many of the panellists in the workshop were tackling the same critical question, albeit in a range of different ways: What should the role of government be in our society, particularly with respect to managing risks, supporting community resilience and strengthening the systems that underpin this resilience?

Although people disagreed on many aspects of this complex issue, the discussion at the workshop revealed that there is a strong willingness on all fronts to wrestle with new ideas and to engage openly in conversations about differences. Key themes in these discussions were the need to build greater shared understanding and the need to develop supportive partnerships amongst people and groups that encompass governments and civil society, particularly at the local level. Something that made the workshop unique (at least in the context of the relatively conservative setting of a university) was that it brought together an unusually diverse spectrum of people. The panellists represented a wide range of sectors, perspectives, and experiences. In particular, there was a strong contribution from civil society and the non-government sector, including people involved in informal as well as formal disaster management initiatives.

For me, the diversity of perspectives helped to create a rich, multi-layered picture of the critical challenges we face in living (well) with and managing risk and adversity together as members of Australian society and communities. This picture extended from the local stories of healing and renewal in Steels Creek – a community affected by theBlack Saturday fires in Victoria in 2009 – to the way thought leaders across government and civil society are working to stimulate change in governance structures, relationships and processes. There is a lot more to say about a whole range of critical issues that participants flagged at the workshop.

Many future posts on this blog will feature material and commentary inspired by their contributions and the discussions they sparked amongst the people present. We’ll also be posting an ‘official’ summary of the workshop a little later on. Not all the people who took part in the workshop felt as positively as I did at the end of the day about the potential for real and positive change in this field in the future. One thing that was clear (and that was repeated by a number of people during the day) was that everyone active in this field – in whatever capacity – needs to continue engaging in open and honest conversations like the ones that were started last week.

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