Introduction

How to strengthen the independence of IA reviewers and practitioners? 

This article is also published as letter to the editor in the journal Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal- 21-12-2020

A common and long standing criticism
In their invitation to the IAIA19 Annual meeting the conference organizers stated that lack of independence in preparing IA documentation is one of the “common and long standing criticisms of Impact Assessment”. This perception is a serious problem for the profession, in particular if it turns out to be true. People’s trust in the results of an assessment is correlated with their willingness to base their actions and decisions on it. And this trust is likely to be significantly enhanced if the people preparing (‘practitioners’) or reviewing (‘reviewers’) the impact assessments are perceived as ‘independent’ from those that have an interest in what will finally be decided.

So what can we do?
This letter suggests to consider the establishment of a professional IAIA standard for independence of IA reviewers and practitioners. This is not necessarily to be used as a benchmark, but to inspire and support IA reviewers and practitioners to achieve the highest level of independence, feasible within their context. To explore what such a standard could look like, the Netherlands Commission for Environmental Assessment organized a session on independence in IA at IAIA19, followed by an online discussion with interested IAIA members. The following conclusions were drawn:

  • 100% independence will be difficult to achieve in practice, however, this should not keep us from trying to achieve a level of independence that leads to a high level of trustworthiness.
  • ‘Sufficient independence’ will not be created by one measure or characteristic, but will be the result of a carefully balanced set of measures and characteristics.

Building blocks for independence.
Even though complete independence may not always be feasible, there will always be possibilities to strengthen it. These possibilities can be referred to as ‘building blocks’ for independence. But what are these building blocks?

Tables 1 and 2 describe an initial proposal for building blocks for independence for IA reviewers and IA practitioners. The tables are based on the work of Gilardi & Maggetti (2011), Irion & Ledger (2013) and the input of IAIA members. The building blocks are categorized under five headings: status & power, financial autonomy, organizational autonomy, knowledge & expertise and transparency & accountability. Within each category a distinction is made between ‘formal’ independence – what can be laid down in regulation or administrative arrangements – and ‘de facto’ independence – what can be secured in practice.

The distinction between building blocks for reviewers and practitioners is relevant, because even though there may be a number of overlapping building blocks, we have to accept that certain building blocks will not be a realistic option for practitioners, such as formal financial independence.

The list of building blocks presented here does not claim to be exhaustive, but provides an attempt to focus on the ‘key’ issues of independence, as discussed in the professional literature. Also, no attempt has been made to prioritize building blocks. It is assumed that the more building blocks apply, the more the reviewer or practitioner can be independent or will be perceived as such.

Next steps. The building blocks presented here are an initial proposal for discussion. At IAIA21, a new round of exchange will be organized to address questions such as: Is there a role for IAIA in enhancing independence in IA? If so, would a professional standard be part of that? And if yes, are the suggested building blocks a good starting point for this standard?

Table 1:
Possible Key Building Blocks for Independence of IA reviewers

Both individuals and reviewing bodies/agencies

 

 

Institutional and legal arrangements
Formal independence

Operation in practice
De facto independence

 

 

 

Status & powers

the reviewer has independent status and powers

  • Role in reviewing has a formal basis
  • Independence has a formal basis
  • Adheres to a Code of Ethics
  • Signs a ‘declaration of absence of conflicts’ – no past or present professional conflicts with a project
  • Mandated to deliver unsolicited advice on the quality and scope of assessments

 

  • Has no stake or interest in subject (project, plan, etc.) of the assessment
  • Has no conflicted relationship with the authors of the assessment
  • Chooses its own benchmarks & approach
  • Can show evidence of independence in practice (products and actions)

 

Financial autonomy

the reviewer is financially autonomous

  • Financial sourcing has a legal basis
  • Is not paid by those reviewed
  • Mandated to set its own budget
  • Secures sufficient budget for the review
  • Is autonomous in internal budget allocation
  • Budget for reviewing is stable over time
  • Finances are provided upfront

 

Organizational autonomy

the reviewer functions autonomously

  • Mandated to nominate its own staff, board and chairperson
  • Has rules for incompatibility of offices
  • Successfully withstands political pressure, e.g. on nominations or dismissals of board or staff, or on conclusions of the assessment or review

 

Knowledge and expertise

the reviewer has sufficient knowledge and professional expertise to execute its task

 

  • Requirements exist for professional expertise
  • Access to information is formally secured, including right to collect information
  • Mandated to seek external advice where needed
  • Chairperson, board and staff have adequate professional expertise 
  • External advice is used in practice

Accountability and transparency

the reviewer is accountable and transparent

  • Formal obligation to publish & justify reviews
  •  Legal mandate to organize consultations
  • Complaint mechanism exists
  •  Formal requirement on external financial and quality audits
  • Review results are published and justified
  •  Consultations take place, are of high quality and response is given to those consulted
  • Complaint mechanism is regularly used
  •  Financial and quality audits take place

 

Table 2:
Possible Key Building Blocks for Independence of IA practitioners

Both individuals and reviewing bodies/agencies

 

 

Institutional and legal arrangements
Formal independence

Operation in practice
De facto independence

 

 

 

Status & powers:

the practitioner has independent status and powers

  • Independence secured through certification/accreditation schemes
  • Adheres to a Code of Ethics
  • Signs ‘declaration of absence of conflicts’ – no past or present professional conflicts with a project

 

  • Has no stake or interest in subject (project, plan, etc.) of the assessment
  • Chooses its own benchmarks & approach
  • Can show evidence of independence in practice (products and actions)

Financial autonomy

the practitioner is financially autonomous

 

 

 

  • Secures sufficient budget for the assessment
  • Is autonomous in internal budget allocation

Organizational autonomy

the practitioner functions autonomously

 

  • Nominates its own staff, board and chairperson
  • Has rules for incompatibility of offices

 

  • Successfully withstands political pressure, e.g. on conclusions of the assessment

 

Knowledge and expertise

the practitioner has sufficient knowledge and professional expertise to execute its task

 

  • Requirements exist for professional expertise through certification/ accreditation schemes
  • Access to information is legally secured, including right to collect information
  • Chairperson, board and staff have adequate professional expertise

 

 

Accountability and transparency

the practitioner is accountable and transparent

  • Certification/accreditation schemes require regular external financial and quality audits
  • Complaint mechanism exists
  • Regular financial and quality audits take place
  • Includes high quality consultations in its assessments and response is given to those consulted
  • Complaint mechanism is regularly used

 

 

References

Fabrizio Gilardi & Martino Maggetti, 2011. "The Independence of Regulatory Authorities," Chapters, in: David Levi-Faur (ed.),Handbook on the Politics of Regulation, chapter 14, Edward Elgar Publishing.

Kristina Irion & Michele Ledger, 2013. “Measuring independence: Approaches, limitations, and a new ranking tool.” Chapters, in: Wolfgang Schulz, Peggy Valcke & Kristina Irion (eds.) The Independence of the Media and its Regulatory Agencies, chapter 6, Bristol UK/Chicago USA: Intellect 2013, p. 15-54.