In big picture terms, sharing responsibility for disaster management is about the ways governments and citizens work together to minimise the potential impact of disaster events. The 2009 Victoria Bushfires 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 (NSDR). This project, by Professor John Handmer and Dr Blythe McLennan at RMIT University, sought to open up a process of discussion and examination of this widely supported principle. This was achieved by focusing on its meaning, significance and challenges for the way governments and citizens work together to manage disaster risk.
Collectively, the findings from this project provided some answers to two fundamental questions about shared responsibility: What is it? 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. “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. As Dr McLennan explained, "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?"
If a new social contract is to be adopted, then those questions need to be included in these public discussions, Professor Handmer said. "They need to be considered in the context of core risk management dilemmas, such as the protection of citizen and property holders’ rights."
Dr McLennan said the project found that there is no right or wrong way to share responsibility. "In practice, it presents many diverse yet overlapping and interacting challenges."
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?
Government, emergency service agencies, policy makers, communities and individuals all need to be encouraged to discuss and explore what sharing responsibility means for them. There is no one size fits all approach, nor is there a quick fix solution. Findings also indicate the need to develop governance arrangements and processes that are more inclusive of civil society.
RMIT University’s Marco De Sisto focused his PhD research on how fire and land management agencies in Australia and Italy collaborated on intelligence from bushfire investigations. His findings will assist agencies develop knowledge sharing processes that contribute to fire prevention.