The dynamics of disaster response: how to ensure policy learning in the aftermath?

Environmental disasters can become important events in our individual lives and in the collective memory of a nation. Even eras can be named after them as we may refer to a time before and after the Chernobyl accident. At some point of our lives, almost all of us can expect to be directly or indirectly affected some way by a natural disaster, major industrial or technological accident. Such events often also become landmark cases in environmental policy.

Big environmental disasters have the potency to cause significant changes in existing governmental policies and practices. Some evident examples are the Three Mile Island and the more recent Fukushima nuclear accidents, which induced major shift in several states’ energy policies. In Finland, Talvivaara clearly stands out as an event that changed how the country has viewed mining ever since. These so-called focusing events cause many people – bureaucrats, media, elected officials, and the public – to pay greater attention to the problems revealed by the incident.

Furthermore, people tend to react differently depending on the perceived cause and the characteristics of the disaster. Whereas natural disasters have been found to produce therapeutic response in which communities unite, technologically induced disasters have a corrosive effect on community life. Indeed, if the disaster is seen as an “act of God” or a freak accident, our attention turns to what we can do to help the victims. However, if the disaster is seen as a result of human failings – poor design, operator error, “corporate greed”, or “governmental neglect” – our attention turns to the voluntary acceptance of responsibility or to the more coercive process of fixing blame. Either way, the public is likely to demand safer and more sustainable policies from the decision-makers.

This creates a window of opportunity for change. Action is taken, all in hopes of “learning something from this incident” to ensure that something similar does not happen again. However, there are no guarantees that this will lead to a positive and sustainable outcome. Action may be taken in a rush, in an attempt to please the public, without sufficient learning behind it. The question then becomes, how to ensure that the decisions and the policies made after disasters are a consequence of learning and not a knee jerk reaction to the public pressure? Sometimes it can be quite difficult to see the extent to which governments learn after critical events.

Thomas A. Birkland develops a model for event-related policy change in his excellent book Lessons of Disaster (2006), offering one way to examine these processes. According to him, there are several key steps that must occur for learning based policies to be created. The first crucial step for the event is to gain attention. The size and importance of the event are socially constructed but the event must come first, and it must be large enough to gain attention. The second step is group mobilization. If mobilization does not occur, it restraints learning, because learning requires competition between advocacy coalitions, as each side tries to gather evidence and knowledge about the policy process and political tactics to advance its goals.

The third, and perhaps the most important step, is the discussion of ideas in various forums about the reasons for the event and whether the existing policy can address the problems revealed by the event. If a policy is shown to have failed, the discussion will include policies that seek to remedy the failure and prevent reoccurrence. A change can also happen without such discussion, but it is possible that “superstitious learning” is at work, as Birkland calls it. It can also lead to a positive outcome, but rather by accident than by design. However, if we can draw a link between ideas, an event, and increased attention to ideas and new policies, then we have strong evidence of instrumental policy learning and possibly some evidence of social policy learning and political learning. Even if no policy change occurs, the event can lead to accumulated experience which may promote learning in the future.

Historically the field of environmental policy is rather unique in a sense that significant events have always played a major part in shaping it. While slow change allows for gradual adaptation, abrupt change is more challenging for the social structure and the production system, which do not adapt easily. This is particularly an issue when such events do not occur frequently – memory decays and risk perception weakens. Nonetheless, policy leaps may occur. Every disaster brings losses but also gains, if we make the most of them.


Juha Kotilainen


More reading:


Birkland, T. A. (2006). Lessons of Disaster: Policy Change after Catastrophic Events. Georgetown University Press. Washington DC.

Kotilainen, J. M. (2015): Environmental Disasters as the Drivers for Policy Change – Case Study: Talvivaara Mine. Master’s thesis. University of Eastern Finland.

Kroll-Smith, J., Couch, S. & A. G. Levine (2002). Technological Hazards and Disasters. In the book Dunlap, R. E. & W. Michelson (ed.) Handbook of Environmental Sociology. Greenwood Press. Westport, CT.

Why do people who care about their survival ignore the warnings of doom?

In the aftermath of an environmental or other type of disaster, we often find out that someone or some faction had already given a pre-emptive warning about the looming crisis. An outrage follows: who screwed up, why were these warnings ignored and why was no preventive action taken? It brings up a valid question: why do we act on some warnings but dismiss others? I look at few possible explanations in this first blog of a three-part series about disasters.

We can begin by looking at the question with a societal (and quite pessimistic) lens of risk society, borrowing from Ulrich Beck (1992). He argues that the complexity of the contemporary risks makes them very hard to estimate as they are difficult to understand without profound knowledge about the issue. Chemicals, radiation and climate change are all hidden behind numbers and diagrams, making them invisible to our basic senses. In this context, the reservations of few experts or a group of people in the face of potential great economic benefits may get lost in the background noise and labelled as scaremongering.

Following this line of thought, we can ask how difficult it is to gather the political will to change some industry wide systems before something bad actually happens? It is a grim thought, but from a learning perspective, it is possible that a disaster is required to reveal just how bad it can be.  Furthermore, even if the proactive change or action is successful and prevents these risks from coming true, there is usually little to show that these efforts were required. No prize for the good-doers.

However, not all warnings go to deaf ears. Understanding the psychology behind the issue is the first step of overcoming the feeling of futility. Here are three lessons highlighted in the recent Hidden Brain podcast and the linked articles you can find after the blog.

First, people are more willing to accept the warning if it comes from someone within the group. Being an insider with the right political credentials and understanding of the context where the decision-maker is operating improves greatly the effectiveness of the message. Due to psychological bias, we are generally more sympathetic with people who have more common with us. If you can frame the warning emphasizing the shared values or qualities, you may gain more empathy for your cause.

Second, the warning of the impending disaster must be clear enough that most people can see it. Furthermore, it has been proven that it is hard for people to look far into the future. If we think the consequences are in the distant future, we tend to discount the risk. Looking from the decision-makers perspective, they are often pulled in many different directions. Paying attention to one risk means less attention to others. If you come with a vague warning about some distant problem, you are going to get sidelined. Presenting a clear path how the conflict would escalate with strong evidence increases your chances of being heard.

Finally, people and decision-makers are more willing to acknowledge the warning if taking action does not require us to go too much out of our comfort zone or to change our existing policies drastically. Indeed, what makes warning often hard to believe is their political inconvenience. Sometimes it may not be possible but coming up with a solution that does not require a radical shift in existing strategy will reduce the chance that the warning will be ignored.


Juha Kotilainen


More reading & listening:

Beck, U. (1992). Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Sage. Wiltshire.

Meyer, C. O., & Otto, F. (2016). How to Warn: ‘Outside-in Warnings’ of Western Governments about Violent Conflict and Mass Atrocities. DOI: 10.1177/1750635216656969

NPR Hidden Brain podcast (2018). The Cassandra Curse: Why We Heed Some Warnings, And Ignore Others

Why we keep ignoring even the most dire climate change warnings (2018.)

How to win together

Winning and being a winner are two very different things when it comes to interest based negotiation. During a one week course in Joensuu about Environmental Collaboration and Conflict Resolution this distinction was elaborated with an exercise that can be used in recognizing three important factors in successful negotiation.

In August 2018 NOVA University Network organized together with All-Youth and CORE projects a course about Environmental Collaboration and Conflict Resolution. From Akordi Juha Kotilainen and I attended the course. Mara Hernández from Mexico CIDE-University was one of the teachers in the course and opened the course with an eye-opening exercise. In the exercise the class was split to two teams. Both teams were given the objective to get the other party to their side. The exercise was executed in teams of two.

The exercise took only few minutes but during that time we could see the variety of different strategies people had on trying to achieve their objectives. Few of us tried to convince our partners about our side being better than theirs. Some stayed put because they didn’t want the other one to succeed. Some tried to fool their partners into changing side by promising to return the favor even though they had no real intention to do so.

All of the above are basic negotiation strategies. Trying to convince others that your objective is more justified. Holding on to ”better safe than sorry” approach and ending up in the same place where you started from. Even cheating and making false promises in order to get what you want. Some, however, decided to switch their places simultaneously. This strategy resulted in a situation where both parties got exactly what they wanted without losing trust.

Discussion that followed revealed three main factors that were crucial in order to find a collaborative solution. First of all, finding a solution that benefits all requires willingness to collaborate. As long as the parties don’t see collaboration as an option neither one will be able to get what they want. Secondly, coming up with a collaborative solution requires mutual trust. If the other party will cheat and lie about coming to the other ones side the trust will probably be lost. The one who had lied might have reached their objective on this round but possibilities for future collaboration have decreased. Lastly, there has to be a shared understanding about the solution being beneficial for both parties. If even one party thinks that the solution will not be beneficial for them it is likely that agreement will not be reached.

The exercise we had about trying to get the other one to our side can be seen as a very simplified negotiation setting where all parties have their own objectives. To achieve an agreement it is important to recognize which interests are distributive and which ones are integrative. Very often we see different interests as distributive ones – ”I can’t move to the other side because then the other party won’t come to my side”. But then again, this is not true. By going to the other side I lose nothing, but by doing that I can make it easier for the other party to come to my side.

Obviously there are also interests distributive by nature. Issues regarding land-use or the use of natural resources are often issues where different interests can’t be met at the same time. A land can not be both protected and used for building. Still, around these distributive issues there are also a lot of interests that are integrative. By framing the negotiation and mediation processes in a way that enables discussion over integrative interests we can find ways for different actors to have better relationships and communication.

There is a difference between winning and being a winner. The ones who had a ”winner” mentality during the exercise were not able to come up with an agreement. They ended up trying to convince and cheat their partner. The winner mentality guides us to aim for solutions where we gain as much as we can while others get as little as possible. The problem is, that with this kind of thinking all parties usually end up having less than they could have had. By thinking and discussing about what are the needs and interests of the parties involved there is a good chance that we can find solutions that are beneficial for all. There can only be one winner, but winning can be accomplished together.

More about the course (in finnish):

Emma Luoma

Iijoki River Visioning Process

Iijoki is a great river flowing through Northern Ostrobothnia. The river is harnessed by hydroelectric power production and it’s characterized by similar problems and needs as other river valleys of its kind. One of the common factors is a requirement to recover the vitality of migratory fish stocks. It has been recognized that the river would have great potential and it could support the development of the whole area if the water area would be developed jointly with all the key stakeholders. However, taking major steps in developing the use of the river has been difficult in the past and jointly shared vision of Iijoki river’s future has not been found.

From these starting points in March 2016, a new operating model was launched to build a shared vision of the future of the water system and to ensure the commitment of various parties involved. The aim of the process was to create a widely accepted vision of the river basin but more importantly to strengthen parties’ commitment to the development of ​​the river while taking the different values into consideration and ensuring the work continuity in the future.

Akordi has been a part of the project by planning a participatory process and facilitating the Iijoki river vision advisory board meetings. Advisory board was gathered from a wide range of stakeholder groups representing various kinds of interests. From the beginning the efforts has been made to build trust between actors to enable genuine negotiations also in difficult situations.

Iijoki river vision is now ready but the advisory board will continue to work on prioritizing and planning measures and new projects to increase the value of the river. The visioning process has created a good base to continue cooperation in the area.

Visioning process was a part of a larger Ijjoki otva project managed by the Council of Oulu Region.

Tools for Collaborative Governance -training on Thursday 29.10.2015


8:00           Coffee

8:30           Morning Session: Framework for Collaborative Governance

(Participants are asked to bring a case or situation for discussion that they are facing or have faced that might benefit from collaborative approaches.)

  • Why Collaborative Governance is a Necessity in 21st Century
  • Defining Collaborative Governance and its Unique Dynamics in Public Problem Solving
  • Introduction to the Spectrum of Decision Making: Characteristics of Effective Collaborative Process and Application to Collaborative Governance
  • Frameworks for Collaborative Governance: Agreement Seeking, Implementation and Public Engagement
  • Application to Cases

12:00        Lunch

13:00        Afternoon Session: Getting the Most out of Collaborative Governance

  • Mapping and Expanding Public Networks to Expand Resources and Increase Accountability
  • Building, Repairing, or Strengthening Collaborative Relationships
  • Assessing a Situation & Framing the Issues
  • Steps for Consensus Based Decision Making
  • Forging Multi-Party Agreements in a Political Environment
  • Case Studies and Discussion

Registration by 23.10.2015 register HERE tai Sanna Rönkkönen,, p. 050 3393347

Price: 310 €, including vat (price for participants from organisations)

(Reduced price 160 €, including vat for individuals)

Lunch at your own expence.