- The next five years are crucial
- Promoting substitution to safer chemicals through innovation
- Improving compliance with restrictions
- More progress needed to replace animal tests
- Poison centres: changes to placing hazardous mixtures on the market
- Do you know the symbols on products? Learn them to prevent accidents
- Incentives needed for biocides innovation
- Valmet – generating business value through regulatory compliance
- How chemicals can affect the health of developing children
- What EU agencies can learn about being transparent - Q&A with the EU Ombudsman
- Guest column: Mastering challenging chemical risk assessments using Chesar
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Article related to: People and perspectives
What EU agencies can learn about being transparent - Q&A with the EU Ombudsman
Public trust in the work of EU agencies is extremely important to their reputation. This is especially true for agencies dealing with scientific assessments that form a basis for decision making on, for example, the safety of food, the medicines we take or the chemicals we are exposed to. We spoke with the EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly to hear her views on how EU agencies can gain public trust.
What are the most important aspects of gaining the public's trust in EU decision making?
|EU Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly. |
Image: European Union.
A useful starting point is to assume that the public has a right to know what an institution is doing, how and why. Such information should proactively be made public unless there is a good reason for it not to be.
In general, EU institutions have high transparency standards. However, as EU policies affect many aspects of people’s lives and the EU is often perceived as remote, it must work harder to win the public’s trust.
Trust in EU decision making can be improved by making the process easier to follow. Ordinary citizens simply do not know what their government’s position on a piece of legislation is as discussions on it evolve. If citizens do not have an innate sense of how we travelled from point A to point B, they are less likely to trust the institutions that managed that journey.
Citizens should also be given the tools to inform themselves. It is not enough to simply unleash a mass of information onto a website and consider the job done. The information has to be structured, it has to be in one place and it needs to be regularly updated.
Another aspect is understandable communication. When people read acronyms and eurospeak that they do not understand, they risk becoming apathetic or even hostile towards the institutions.
How can EU agencies make their policy making more transparent and trustworthy?
ECHA’s website, for example, is informative and well laid out and I can see that a lot of effort has gone into explaining complex terms in a clear manner.
I am also impressed by the fact that European Ombudsman cases concerning ECHA are listed on the website and that the declarations of interest of senior ECHA figures are listed. These kinds of steps increase public trust.
Broadly speaking, it is always good to consider your own institution or agency through the eyes of the public. Could an action or situation give the impression that there is a conflict of interest, that a decision may have been unduly influenced, or that something is being hidden?
It is better – and much easier – to anticipate potential problems than to try to dispel the effects of negative publicity afterwards.
How do you see the balance between public and confidential information?
In my work, I regularly come across instances where information is not disclosed because it is deemed confidential business information.
There are occasions when some information cannot be released on data privacy or business confidentially grounds. This is reasonable. What is not reasonable is using these grounds as a basis for blanket refusal of access to information.
I believe a middle ground still has to be found. Given agencies’ regulatory responsibilities, the point of departure for discussion has to be that citizens have a right to know on what basis decisions are made.
The European Commission announced in December that it will come forward with a legislative proposal this year to increase transparency in scientific assessments. My office will continue to follow this issue.
How do you see ECHA's role towards consumers? REACH does not include many references to consumer awareness and the role has been given more to the national authorities.
While much of ECHA’s work may be invisible to the public, its consequences are very real. I commend ECHA for setting up a database with information about thousands of chemicals, which is also open to the public. I also welcome the fact that there are web pages dedicated to explaining who is responsible for chemical safety and what is done about hazardous chemicals.
It is important for all agencies to establish an internal culture that recognises that their ultimate responsibility is to the consumer. In my experience, the public wants to trust that regulatory authorities are upholding the highest standards in ethics, accountability and transparency. It is not enough, however, for a public authority to say this is the case, they must also demonstrate that this is the case.
After Brexit, the EU's reputation has taken a hit. What can we do to improve public perception of the EU?
I think that the UK’s decision put the EU, and what it means to be a Member State, into sharp focus. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, European politics and EU politicians regularly occupied the front pages of newspapers.
Citizens heard about what the EU actually does on social media, in newspapers and on radio. European politics was beginning to sound a lot like normal national politics. And polls showed that support for the EU increased in most Member States after the referendum. Having said that, more could be done to improve the public’s perception of the EU. The first important aspect is education.
Public perception of the EU is built on what people understand about it or what they hear about it. But it is often difficult for citizens to know the EU like they know their own national institutions. EU institutions feel far away, are often physically far away and are built on a system that is not analogous with national systems. More systematic teaching about the EU and its history in schools would remove some of this feeling of otherness.
The second important point is that the EU should get credit for popular initiatives or laws. At the moment, the tendency is to blame the EU for less popular policies, even though, as we all know, Member States are involved in shaping them. National governments, meanwhile, tend to own the more popular ones.
Interview by Hanna-Kaisa Torkkeli
Published on: 15 February 2018
Top image: © European Union
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Committee for Socio-Economic
1-4 and 8-11 June (tentative);
7-11 and 14-18 September (tentative)
Committee for Risk Assessment:
1-5 and 8-12 June;
7-11 and 14-18 September (tentative)
Member State Committee:
Biocidal Products Committee:
Management Board meeting: