A public dialogue to explore the messages about flood risk as well as develop innovative methods and techniques to help individuals and communities understand the risk of flooding in their area.
Problems and Purpose
The Environment Agency is responsible for ensuring that flood-risk communications are appropriate for a public audience, while helping to develop and promote a better understanding of flood and coastal erosion risks. The Environment Agency was aware that maps showing surface water flooding risks needed updating and that other types of flood information were not meeting the needs of those who were in flood-risk areas. In 2013, the Environment Agency and the Department for Environment, Flood and Rural Affairs (Defra) agreed that it was an appropriate time for a larger, more ambitious approach to working with members of the public to discuss how best to communicate the risks of flooding and encourage people to take action where possible.
The objectives of the public dialogue were to:
- Review the current issues surrounding flood-risk communications and lessons learnt from other countries or disciplines
- Co-create, with members of the public, ways of helping individuals and communities better understand flood risk, link risk to appropriate action, and feel empowered to take action
- Help agencies adopt a consistent approach to conveying risk and likelihood, enabling them to join up their subsequent activities
- Produce recommendations from members of the public and stakeholders on resources that are likely to result in positive changes to how people think and act in response to flood risk.
Background History and Context
Current UK flood-risk management legislation and related strategy includes a strong emphasis on involving communities and working in partnership to deliver actions and make decisions around flood risk. This includes principles contained in the National Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy for England 2011, Defra’s principles for flood and coastal resilience funding, and new statutory duties for lead local flood authorities within the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 and Flood Risk Regulations 2009. In addition, the Local Government Group’s preliminary framework for local flood-risk strategies highlights the importance of effective communication to promote better community relations and awareness of flood-risk management issues.
The institutional and regulatory landscape for managing flood risks in the UK is complex, with several organisations involved including the Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales, the Met Office, local authorities and local flood forums. Additionally, local and central government; the emergency services; the Environment Agency; and other agencies, insurers and individuals have responsibilities for preventing floods and dealing with the impacts during flood situations and in the aftermath. Previous projects have identified the continuing confusion in the minds of the public about who does what.
Considerable research has been done in the UK and internationally into public perception of flood risk and responses to flood warnings. However, less was known about the ways in which communications could increase awareness and promote action to prepare for flood risk in the absence of a flood event. There has also been limited work to engage ‘at risk’ communities in assessing the effectiveness of communications in promoting resilience.
This public dialogue project explored risk perception and response in relation to flooding. The aim was to generate practical outputs (messages, materials and approaches to the use of different media) designed to increase awareness, encourage engagement and improve responses to flood risk. The results of the dialogue project were intended to:
- Inform the way the Environment Agency presents its flood maps and the way it coordinates with other agencies over these methods of communication
- Provide a basis for agencies working with communities at risk of flooding to be more consistent and joined up in their communications and action. 
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Total cost of project: £360 800 (Sciencewise contribution: £140 000)
The project was commissioned by the Environment Agency. The Environment Agency is an Executive Non-departmental Public Body responsible to the Secretary of State for Environment, flood and Rural Affairs and a Welsh Government Sponsored Body responsible to the Minister for Environment and Sustainable Development.
Sciencewise provided expertise and financial support. Sciencewise-ERC is a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills funded programme to bring scientists, government and the public together to explore the impact of science and technology in our lives. It helps Government departments and agencies commission and use public dialogue to inform policy making, involving science and technology issues. Its core aim is to develop the capacity of Government to carry out good dialogue, to gather and disseminate good practice, have successful two-way communications with the public and other stakeholders, and to embed the principles of good dialogue into internal Government processes.
The delivery contractors, 3KQ, working with Collingwood Environmental Partnership (CEP) and Osprey Communications were appointed in November 2013. 3kQ are leaders in the field of facilitation and stakeholder engagement while Collingwood Environmental Planning (CEP) is an independent multidisciplinary environmental and sustainability consultancy. Osprey Communications is a dynamic and creative public relations agency.
URSUS Consulting Ltd were the evaluators of the project.  They specialize in providing advice on sustainable development, economic development, environmental policy, climate change and the low carbon economy to clients in the public, private and voluntary sectors.
An Oversight Group was set up prior to the detailed design of the dialogue project and the appointment of contractors. The Group comprised 18 members from the following stakeholder organisations: Environment Agency; Met Office; Hampshire County Council; Red Cross; Public Health England; Cambridge University; Welsh Government; Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS); Lancaster University; Defra; Northumbria University; National Flood Forum; the Cabinet Office; a local authority councilor; DCLG; and Natural Resources Wales.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Public participants involved: 95
Stakeholders involved: 18
Experts involved in events: 27
Initial dialogue events were held in 5 locations. Locations were carefully chosen by the Oversight Group and the Environment Agency team to represent a mix of areas that had relatively recent experience of flooding (Oxford and York) and those that were at high risk of flooding of different types but with less recent experience (Leicester – river, surface and ground; Newtown – surface water; Skegness – coastal). Although Skegness was originally chosen as somewhere that had not experienced flooding, the winter 2014 tidal surge – although not directly impacting homes – meant participants had awareness of flood risk.
Recruitment for the first round of dialogue events was subcontracted to a market research recruitment agency. Each workshop (5 in total) aimed to bring together 18 members of the public with over-recruitment of six per workshop to allow for drop out. Participants received a ‘thank you payment’ at the end of both events (£120 plus travel or parking costs for those for the two events in York and Oxford). Participants were told that the dialogue topic was flooding and so could be expected to have some interest, but not necessarily knowledge, in the topic.
A sample of 28 participants from the first dialogue events were invited to join a reconvened workshop.
Methods and Tools Used
The approach consisted of two rounds of dialogue events.
Five locations across the UK with experience of flooding hosted two-day facilitated workshops. The stimulus materials used included:
- introductory printed materials to flood risk and photos developed for the Newcastle pilot
- a talking head video by the Oversight Group Chair introducing the project and its importance to Environment Agency
- a PowerPoint explaining the objectives, partners involved and flooding concepts and the historic flood risk context tailored to each location
- video clips on the impacts of flooding
- static flood maps (surface, river or coastal risks) tailored to each location
- a live telephone call to Floodline and use of Environment Agency online communication tools
- scenarios for three characters at different stages of the journey in finding about flood risks (from static to imminent risk)
- flood alert fliers and posters
- property flood risk reports
- personal flood plans
A reconvened workshop of 28 participants from previous events aimed to develop more concrete recommendations.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Round 1 public dialogue events
The Round 1 events were designed to be held in five different locations in England and Wales – Leicester, Newtown, Oxford, Skegness and York – between May and October 2014. Two events were held at each location (10 hours in total): a midweek evening introduction (3.5 hours), followed by a full day Saturday workshop (6.5 hours). All workshops were independently facilitated by the 3KQ/CEP team with rapporteurs taking contemporaneous notes on laptops supported by audio recordings at each table.
Over the five locations, 30 experts participated in Day 1 meetings and 25 in Day 2 meetings. Each had their own competences and most were recruited by the Environment Agency project manager for their knowledge of the local area. Each event was also attended by a member of the Environment Agency project management team. All experts were briefed by the facilitation team by telephone and face-to-face before the meetings. At least one expert was available to each table on each day in each location.
Day 1 at each location introduced participants to the complexity of flood causes and risks, and existing Environment Agency flood maps, with opportunities to question specialists and to request further information or inputs for workshop 2. Between the workshops, participants were encouraged to undertake some ‘homework’ to find out more about flood risks in their area.
Day 2 brought the same group back to consider challenges and choices in flood risk communication in the context of scenarios around three different ‘characters’ – a grandmother living alone, a student and a single mother – to explore their journey from being ‘flood unaware’ to ‘flood literate’ and from static to imminent risk. Utilising stimulus materials described above.
Round 2 Public Dialogue Event
A reconvened workshop was held in Birmingham on Saturday 22 November 2014 to bring together a sample of members of the public who had attended the first round of workshops with experts in flood risk communications to produce more concrete recommendations to take forward to the final Oversight Group workshop.
The workshop was attended by 28 public participants (4–6 from each of the previous workshops) and representatives from Public Health England, Red Cross, National Flood Forum, BIS-Sciencewise and the Environment Agency. There were 3–4 experts per table, plus a table facilitator and rapporteur. Observers were also present from the University of Birmingham.
A film crew recorded parts of the overall process and recorded vox pops with six members of the public (Skegness 1, Leicester 2, Oxford 2, Newtown 1) and two members of the Environment Agency core management team and the Oversight Group chair.
Summary of Key Messages from the Public
The core messages to emerge from the workshops were:
- Don’t talk about risks – and particularly probabilities and return events. Focus on impacts and actions – as rescue services do.
- Maps are not always helpful.
- There are differences in the journey of the ‘flood literate’ and ‘flood unaware’.
- One size does not fit all – proliferation of different routes for conveying core messages will be needed, but all should keep the language simple, clear and precise.
- The public remains confused about who does what in an emergency and in ‘peace time’.
- The public has limited awareness of Floodline or the responsibilities of individuals to protect their own property.
- An increase in understanding can lead to individual action.
- Peer to peer communications and trusted individuals are important in getting messages across. First-hand experiences are very powerful.
The initial set of workshops provided a lot of detailed feedback about a range of communication materials. Alongside comments on specific materials, some overriding principles emerged from this first round of workshops:
- Think about the needs of different audiences.
- Don’t assume a little bit of information will scare people – telling the truth about risk and impacts is more likely to lead to action.
- Stop talking about probability and risk in mathematical language, as it means very little to a lot of people.
- Be really clear with people on what is happening before, during and after a flood, and what actions they should take.
- If you are asking people to take individual actions, tell them (in the same communication) about what local and national organisations are doing too (i.e. we are all in this together).
- Focus on making information local, with historical context.
- Don’t just focus on negative impacts of flooding – focus on what people can do about it.
These workshops also showed that there was a clear difference in the awareness and readiness to take action between those who had experienced recent or regular flooding and those who had not. Both groups had a tendency to fall outside the flood risk authorities’ communication systems in different ways. Those who had experience of flooding – the ‘flood literate’ – tended to use Environment Agency and Met Office communications as useful tools, but relied heavily on their own experience, local knowledge and observation. Those who had not experienced flooding – the ‘flood unaware’ – tended not to see the relevance of flood communications to them. 
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The dialogue project included specific meetings and other activities to turn the results of the dialogue into action. As early as November 2014, the Environment Agency had taken on board many of the project messages and specific findings and produced mock-ups of flood-risk maps and communication materials (fliers, personal flood plans and so on).
Further actions started when the project ended in February 2015. These included work to improve website access and information, revising flood maps, linking the work to post-flood review recommendations, and flood awareness work by Natural Resources Wales. A plan to implement the outcomes from the dialogue project was also developed, which detailed extensive further planned actions.
In March 2015, four key communications teams from the Environment Agency identified immediate actions and the need to develop a core narrative for communications with the press and others. During the following months, further actions ranged from the very tangible for directly public-facing, flood-risk communication roles (within the Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales, National Flood Forum) to more indirect impacts for those whose main role was to influence other agencies (such as the Cabinet Office, Defra, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), the Welsh Government and the Flood Forecasting Centre). These stakeholders reported that they would be pushing core messages through their communications to others who communicate directly with the public, such as local authorities, flood forums and emergency service providers. 
Analysis and Lessons Learned
What worked especially well
The key lessons for the future on what worked well include:
A well-managed Oversight Group with the right people at the right levels broadened the project’s impacts. Membership of the Group was at a sufficiently senior level to act as good conduits for taking project messages into their organisations. Setting up an Oversight Group early gave the group time to cohere, and to think through objectives, ideal outcomes and key questions they had for the public before commissioning external delivery contractors.
The workshops with the public were well-structured and delivered in a warm, stimulating atmosphere. The facilitation and project management team was excellent, independent, fair, maintained focus and was sensitive to participants’ distressing real experience of flooding. The team’s experience of the topic and working with the Environment Agency were important in shaping the design of the dialogue and giving Oversight Group members confidence.
The scale, spread of locations and audiences (those without flood experience and the ‘flood literate’) left policy makers feeling they had heard from broad publics including the ‘hardest to reach’.
Some 30 specialists from the Environment Agency and local authorities participated in the dialogue sessions. All specialists found the events very useful in providing new insights, reinforcing anecdotal evidence or experience, and building local relationships.
The reconvened event demonstrated how outputs from round one of the dialogue were already being used, which impressed participants and led to very high levels of trust in the usefulness of the process.
What worked less well
Recruitment with very specific sampling requirements (postcodes and experience) or in locations unfamiliar to the recruiters takes longer, which needs to be reflected in project planning
A large Oversight Group over a long project can pose real challenges in terms of management, coordination and maintaining continuity. However, it can also lead to wider project impacts if the right individuals can take the messages back into their own organisations.
 Sciencewise (2016) “Case Study: Public Communication and Engagement on Flood Risk”, Sciencewise- ERC, March 2016
 MacGillivray, A and Livesey, H (2016) “Public dialogues on flood risk communication: Evaluation Report”, Environment Agency, March/January 2016
 Sciencewise (2017) ‘Public Communication and Engagement on Flood Risk’, [ONLINE] Available at: https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20170110132944/http://www.sciencewise-erc.org.uk/cms/public-communication-and-engagement-on-flflflood-risk/