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Quality of Life

Optimizing Environmental Decisions and Community Well-Being through Quality-of-Life Assessment and Management

by Robert Stenner

Everyone would like an improved quality of life. But, as Robert Stenner shows, one person’s benefit is another’s deficit when it comes to assessing general quality-of-life issues. The issues become more confusing when the needs of diverse cultures collide. ASTM Committee E47 is working toward writing a standard that would map out a process for assessing quality-of-life issues where multiple and diverse stakeholders are involved.

Industry and government alike are faced with complex environmental decisions that affect a variety of affected sub-populations with very different values and issues, all caring very deeply about their quality of life, as it will be affected by these decisions. The expressed quality-of-life issues often get very complex. What one group thinks is a bad thing another group is likely to think is a good thing. As a simplistic example, consider the morning commute:

• A Bad Thing: Surely commuting an hour to work, morning and night, decreases the quality of the commuter’s life. Time is wasted, fuel is spent, tires are worn out, and money is put into restoring the car.
• A Good Thing: Tire company workers, fuel providers, and mechanics have their quality of life increased as a direct result of commuters funding their paychecks.

Can we then say people’s lives are better or worse because of a longer commute? This good news/bad news scenario is a simple example of the type of challenge facing decision-makers. Now, increase the complexity of the issues to consider balancing the quality of life for a diverse community facing the problem of how to balance the need for growth and economic stability with deep-seated religious and cultural values, such as those of Native Americans. How does one get both sides to meet somewhere in the middle, so to speak, to move ahead with solving specific environmental problems? Conflicting issues such as these need to be resolved through “informed consensus building” and the direct hands-on involvement of affected stakeholders.

QOL Defined

The World Health Organization has defined quality of life as:

“The individuals’ perceptions of their position in life, in the context of cultural and value systems in which they live, and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards and concerns.”

ASTM Committee E47 on Biological Effects and Environmental Fate is taking on the challenge of seeking to improve quality of life by enabling and placing effective, science-based tools in the hands of stakeholders. The intent is for the stakeholders to decide what areas and issues are most important (human health, ecology, economics, socio-cultural issues) and use the tools best suited to assess and decide on the best course of action for pressing environmental decisions.

Stakeholder Goals

“Stakeholder” is a term applied to a mix of affected peoples associated with a particular environmental decision. They are made up of individuals whose lives are directly or indirectly affected as a result of the decision. The types of stakeholders will be discussed later under the Affected Stakeholder section, but it is important to note here that the goals of these stakeholders can be quite diverse and focused. One of the major challenges in environmental decision-making is to determine which of these goals are essential to a fair and successful decision.

Many decisions have impacts that affect various stakeholders in completely different ways. For example, an increase in commute time to and from work burdens drivers, yet benefits mechanics and petroleum companies. Balancing the needs and desires of multiple stakeholders can be accomplished through informed consensus building. A process that emphasizes openness, fairness, and consideration of the values of others is required, as well as well-defined leadership and understood rules of engagement.

QOL Assessment Process

Subcommittee E47.05 on Risk Assessment, Management, and Communication is taking on the challenge of developing a general process-focused framework standard on quality of life assessment and management. This quality of life process standard will then be supported by existing and new tailored specific analysis and management standards designed to address very focused issues. The existing ASTM Standard, E 1739, Risk-Based Corrective Action Applied at Petroleum Release Sites (RBCA), is an example of such a tailored standard.

QOL Framework Assessment Process Components

Affected Stakeholder Identification

The identification of affected stakeholders and the assembly of the stakeholder committee is probably the most important step in the whole process, as they will be empowered and responsible for the facilitation of the complete QOL process. Stakeholders can often be grouped into the following three categories: 1) affected stakeholders, 2) interested party stakeholders, and 3) regulatory/oversight stakeholders. The affected stakeholders are those people whose lives will be directly impacted by decisions with respect to their health, economic condition, personal environment, and social-cultural-religious lifestyle. The business or “responsible party” owners are certainly part of the affected stakeholders. The interested party stakeholders are those people who have a vested interest, but who do not personally live and work in the impacted area. The regulatory/oversight stakeholders are usually the local, state/provincial, and federal regulatory agencies charged with legal responsibility for controlling the effect of the environmental decision. Often, one or more of these regulatory agencies are part of, or choose to be part of, the affected stakeholder group.

The stakeholder committee is established by drawing primarily from the affected stakeholder group and is charged with the responsibility for managing the assessment process and making the decisions. Once the stakeholder committee is established, it is essential that the “rules of engagement” for all stakeholders be established and communicated. All stakeholders need to be encouraged and shown how to get involved up front in the process. The stakeholder committee will be empowered and responsible for the issues and information gathering, analysis and forecasting activities, establishing “informed consent,” and managing the initiatives and actions resulting from the decision(s).

Information/Issue Establishment

In today’s complex society, fair and equitable environmental decisions require the balancing of many issues and concerns expressed by the stakeholders impacted by the decision. These issues and concerns generally will fit into these four categories:

• Human health issues;
• Ecological issues;
• Economic issues; and
• Socio-cultural issues.

Often environmental decisions are based on the in-depth analysis of the issues and concerns of just one, or possibly two, of these categories, with human health usually being the most favored. This practice has often left many stakeholders frustrated and upset that their “real concerns were never addressed,” and it is not because they did not want the in-depth analysis regarding human health. They expect that to occur, but they had important issues from the other categories that they felt were equally important and not adequately addressed. The framework standard being developed is aimed at establishing a process for a balanced approach to assessing the issues associated with all four of these categories.

Analysis/Forecasting

After the initial issues and information have been gathered from the stakeholders and it is known where the priorities and values of the stakeholders rest, then the necessary analyses associated with the environmental decision at hand can take place. At this point, the stakeholder committee will bring in the technical experts necessary to adequately assess the agreed-upon issues and their associated impacts. It is expected that technical impact modeling and analyses will need to be conducted for all four of the issue categories (i.e., human health, ecology, economics, and socio-cultural issues). Once the results from the modeling and analysis activities is available, the stakeholder committee will be responsible for establishing agreed-upon weighting and valuations of the forecast range of possible outcomes.

Each of these four areas of analysis potentially encapsulates hundreds of possible forecasting methods and approaches. Also, the analyses performed in each of these four areas can be intimately related with one another. The analyses should not be conducted in isolation. For example, an overall increase in peoples’ incomes often results in increased use of natural resources with greater environmental degradation, an increase in human health due to the fact that health care is more affordable, and can result in more money being spent on cultural preservation. In essence, measuring one of these four variables will require that the other three variables be taken into account.

There is no one specific set of analysis methods that will work for all situations. Instead the stakeholder committee will need to consider a variety of models and methods in the “tool box” associated with the QOL process to address the specific issues and questions raised regarding the decision at hand. A host of risk analysis tools are currently available from a broad range of sources (e.g., through ASTM, the Environmental Protection Agency, and many others).

To adequately implement the forecasting/analysis stage, a great amount of communication between the stakeholders and the expert advisors will need to take place. Oftentimes stakeholders are turned off immediately when their needs and values are thrown into a “black box” and an answer suddenly appears. Although this cannot be avoided completely, stakeholder facilitation throughout the forecasting/ analysis stage can help alleviate much of this skepticism.

Also, it is essential that the four forecasting/analysis areas (i.e., human health, ecological, economic, and socio-cultural) be able to “speak” with one another with respect to their results. If all of the economics results are in money terms while all of the socio-cultural measures are in qualitative form, then there will be no real way to analyze these measures together, which is the opposite result of that intended for the QOL process.

Informed Consent Establishment

Once the analyses have been completed, keeping in mind the whole process will likely be quite iterative as the analyses can uncover new issues, it will be necessary to reach (an) agreed upon solution(s). In order to do this, criteria need to be created to decide which solution(s) is (are) preferred. The stakeholders have to agree upon what is most important to them in balancing the human health, ecological, economic, and socio-cultural impacts to establish criteria that cater to what they value most. This structured area of “solution selection criteria” is essential to guarantee that all the needs of stakeholders are accounted for during the selection process. Without this structure, certain needs could easily go unaccounted for. The stakeholders, through the leadership of the stakeholder committee, will have to begin making trade-offs among the different forecasting results. Not every forecast will be positive, so the stakeholders must decide what is most important (from the information stage and their solution selection criteria) among all of their options. Decision assessment tools can be used at this point to prioritize the stakeholders’ decisions and to help analyze the trade-offs that will be made depending on the solution(s) chosen.

Initiatives/Actions

This step of the process involves the implementation of the selected solution(s). Impact and benefit analyses must be run throughout this stage to assess the actual realized impacts of the decision and any associated changes that need to be made to the original decision.

At any point throughout the QOL assessment process, the participants can go back through previous stages to reassess the progress. If certain stakeholder values were not fully accounted for, then it will be necessary to gather more information before making and implementing a decision. If the expert advisors cannot produce accurate forecasts with the information provided, it will be necessary to go back and obtain the necessary information. At any point in the QOL process, there are opportunities to renegotiate and reassess the stakeholders’ needs and additional issues.

Creating a “Standard Guide”

As mentioned, ASTM Subcommittee E47.05 on Risk Assessment, Management, and Communication is in the process of developing a general process-focused framework standard on quality-of-life assessment and management. It is believed that a framework standard defining the process is the essential first step to developing standard-based guidance to effect such a holistic approach to environmental decision-making.

E47.05 has held general QOL interest meetings in Denver, Colo., and Phoenix, Ariz., to solicit the input and participation of a variety of diverse cultures. As a result, a QOL team has been established that extends beyond the normal membership of the sub-committee to help focus and review the QOL-based standards being developed. If you would like to become part of this QOL team, please contact Scott Orthey, ASTM (610/832-9730). //

Copyright 2002, ASTM