Sharing Responsibility - More than a Slogan

Firefighters extinguishing a grass fire

This article was published in the Autumn 2014 edition of Fire Australia magazine.

The concept of shared responsibility was a key theme of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, and it is still a hot topic around the emergency services water cooler.

In big-picture terms, sharing responsibility for disaster management is about the way governments and citizens work together to minimise the potential impact of disaster events. The 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission showed this, identifying that individuals, communities, policy-makers, emergency management agencies and government need to feel responsible.

As part of the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre’s (CRC) Sharing Responsibility Project, Bushfire CRC researchers from the Centre for Risk and Community Safety at RMIT University looked at the underpinning concepts of shared responsibility and held public forums that tapped a groundswell of interest in this complex subject.

“People really wanted to talk about this—everyone from the recovery group at tiny Steels Creek to representatives from the Federal Government,” noted project leader Professor John Handmer.

The researchers encouraged and facilitated these public conversations to continue among governments, disaster agencies, local businesses, community groups and, most importantly, residents in affected areas. Giving people more opportunities to be part of these discussions is critical for turning this seemingly abstract concept into pragmatic reality. Everybody agrees that it is important, but society hasn’t collectively worked out what shared responsibility entails.

Dr Blythe McLennan was a key researcher on the project and recently completed a report, co-authored with Professor Handmer, exploring the full implications of shared responsibility. The study was part of the Bushfire CRC’s Community Expectations Research Program, which consists of project areas involving researchers from different universities. This broader program allowed the issue of shared responsibility to be considered alongside legal and policy-making frameworks, including the important role of legislation in this discussion.

The royal commission brought shared responsibility to the fore and the Council of Australian Governments made it a national challenge under its National Strategy for Disaster Resilience. This positioned shared responsibility as a central pillar of a ‘whole-of-nation, resilience-based approach to disaster management’.

“Like other big policy ideas such as ‘sustainability’ or ‘resilience’, there isn’t one blueprint for what it looks like or how to achieve it,” said Dr McLennan.

For this reason, shared responsibility in disaster management will be an ongoing discussion point because its definition will change according to particular locations, communities, scenarios and circumstances over time.

“There are lots of different and conflicting views on what it is and how and why to do it,” Dr McLennan said.

“Efforts to share responsibility in practice can’t be successful if the people involved don’t try to understand how others see it and why they see it differently.”

Dr McLennan noted shared responsibility needed to be discussed and understood at both theoretical and, most importantly, pragmatic levels.

“Sharing responsibility requires sharing influence over disaster management activities. No one can be responsible for something they have no say over. Agencies are not sharing responsibility, for example, when they decide what people should do and how to do it on their own land without any discussion, and then order people to do it.

“Particularly when it comes to preparation and recovery, to acknowledge the sharing of responsibility agencies will need to share control and allow the needs and priorities identified by the affected community to have more influence in shaping management activities,” she said.

How can we encourage communities to take ownership of shared responsibility?

“By talking about it with community groups and leaders—not abstractly but in the context of issues and risks relevant to the community,” Dr McLennan said.

“Another important step is involving community members in decisions about what needs to be done and how—involving them in shaping the challenges and potential solutions.”

The feedback from participants at the project’s public forums confirmed that this inclusive process was worthwhile and necessary.

The project involved five stages:
1. a literature review of ways responsibility is considered in risk-management research
2. a focus on helping stakeholders to see shared responsibility in new ways
3. a policy review of ways to shape responsibility sharing
4. case studies
5. workshops.

The case studies and workshops were combined to examine shared responsibility issues in ways that were sensitive to the perspectives of stakeholders. The first case examined was the way challenges of shared responsibility were reflected in public submissions to the royal commission. Two major stakeholder engagement workshops were also held to engage a wide range of stakeholders in public conversation about their perspectives on ‘what is wrong and what needs fixing’ with shared responsibility.

Professor Handmer and Dr McLennan say the study provided some answers to two fundamental questions: what is shared responsibility, and how do we do it?

“At a broad, societal level, this is about negotiating a new social contract for disaster management,” Professor Handmer said.

“This is what lies behind calls for ‘a new focus on shared responsibility’. The idea of a social contract is that governments and communities agree on how rights and responsibilities should be allocated between them. This is both formal and informal and is the basis for how society accepts a system of governance.”

But at present, one-half of this social contract is missing.

“In exchange for accepting some responsibility for disaster management, communities are entitled to ask: What’s in it for us? What rights and benefits do we receive?” explained Dr McLennan.

If a new social contract is to be adopted, then those questions need to be included in these public discussions, according to Professor Handmer.

“They need to be considered in the context of core risk-management dilemmas, such as the protection of citizens’ and property holders’ rights.”

The legitimacy and accountability of government agencies and government decisions is another core dilemma; this includes decisions about prescribed burning and management of public land. Another such dilemma is the uneven impact of disaster risk and risk-management activities, for example, through people’s decisions to live on forested blocks. These themes are addressed in other Bushfire CRC studies, investigating land use planning and community perceptions of the landscape and the risk it entails.

“Communities, private land holders, governments, policy-makers and emergency management agencies need to be talking about shared responsibilities alongside shared rights and benefits,” Professor Handmer said.

“But it is a process that cries out for leadership to provide structured opportunities to have these important conversations.”

Dr McLennan said the project found that there was no right or wrong way to share responsibility.

“In practice, sharing responsibility presents many diverse yet overlapping and interacting challenges,” she said.

A simple, practical approach to these challenges could be to structure conversations around providing short answers to basic questions. These would scope out the responsibility-sharing challenges and processes.

These questions could include:
• Sharing responsibility for what? Mitigating hazards? Building resilience? Protecting life? Making informed risk choices?
• Sharing responsibility between which parties at what levels? Emergency service agencies and communities? Property holders and local government? Public and private sectors?
• Sharing responsibility on what grounds? Legal or moral obligations? Social expectations? Capacity to act? Freedom of choice?
• Sharing responsibility under what conditions and limitations? Before, during or after an event? For what type or severity of hazard? Within what legal and institutional structures? In what kinds of natural landscapes?

Questions like these are being developed as a tool to assist stakeholders, which will be produced as part of longer-term activities to use the research outcomes.

The need for more inclusive approaches to governance in Australian disaster management was another key finding of the research.

According to project lead end user Mick Ayre, who is Director Regional Operations at South Australia’s Country Fire Service, a stronger shared vision is one of the many benefits of this project.

“This study has contributed enormously to the growing body of knowledge about how we, as a society, deal with risk and uncertainty. It provides examples of what is currently ‘wrong and what needs fixing’ in respect to responsibility sharing, and how to develop potential mechanisms to learn from past events. Importantly, it offers new ways to think differently about and share the responsibility for disaster management.”

View the research report for this project here.


  • Principal Scientific Adviser, Program Leader, Project Leader, Researcher