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Incoporating Cultural Competence into the Risk Communication & Community Engagement Strategies of the Environment Agency

by Akinkugbe , Seinde , MS

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social order. Johnson (2004) maintains that ethnic identity involves holding both positive
and negative attitudes common to ones ethnic group. As a result, people are generally
influenced by the cultural beliefs associated with their ethnic groups and this reflects on
their outlook towards life. From a risk management perspective, ones outlook can greatly
influence an individual’s interpretation and perception of risk Slovic, Fischoff and
Lichtenstein (1982). In many ways and situations, cultural influences and beliefs can be
deciding factors that contribute to the misinterpretation of risk information Martin (2003).
For this reason, it is essential that emergency service providers have a firm
understanding and awareness of cultural issues before specific information is issued to
communities. Failure to understand culture as a vital determinant of human behaviour
might render well intended policies ineffective thereby leading to cultural incompetence
.The effectiveness of any programme in a diverse society require sensitivity to the social
dynamics of cultural difference Clerveaux, Spence and Katada (2010). This begs the
questions: What is cultural competence? How do we attain this standard? What does it
mean to be culturally competent as a service provider? These questions will be
answered in subsequent paragraphs or chapters

3.3 Cultural competency: What is it?
The phrase cultural competence is gradually becoming a catchphrase in today’s ever
global and multicultural society. It is generally used by many to refer to the necessity to
understand why and how people differ from one another. There are many terms and
concepts that share similar connotations with cultural competence and with interaction
among people from different cultural origins. This includes phrases such as cultural
diversity, cultural awareness, cultural sensitivity, and multiculturalism. Even though these
terms are understated, they are particularly vital in learning about diversity issues and all
convey the idea of improving cross-cultural capacity. For example the term cultural
awareness recommends that it is imperative to develop sensitivity and consciousness of
the similarity and differences among ethnic groups (Adams, 1995). While the expression

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cultural sensitivity indicates the capability to show empathy and understand the
emotional expressions of people from ones culture as well as someone from another
culture Hernandez & Isaacs (1998). However cultural competence suggests an extensive
and a much wider concept than cultural sensitivity and cultural awareness (Department
of Health and Human Services, 2003).

The word “competency” is yet another term that has found its way into our vocabulary
and generally denotes the ability, or the possession of the necessary skills to do a certain
task. Competence is connected to the word culture to stress the fact that both cultural
awareness / sensitivity do not automatically guarantee cultural competence Dana & Allen
(2008). Cross, Bazron, Dennis and Isaacs (1989) describes cultural competence as a set
of congruent behaviours, attitudes and policies that come together in a system, agency
or among professionals that enable them to work effectively in a cross-cultural situation.
Cox & Beale (1997) defines cultural competence as the ability “to effectively respond to
the challenges and opportunities posed by the presence of socio-cultural diversity in a
defined social system”(p.8). While Hurdle (2002) suggests that “cultural competency is
the development of adequate professional skills to provide services to ethnic, racial and
cultural groups” (p. 183). King, Sims & Osher (2006) “maintains that cultural competency
is the ability to learn, communicate and work respectfully with people different from
themselves (p.1)”. Irrespective of the definitions, cultural competency is the acceptance
and respect for difference, a continuous self-assessment regarding culture, and attention
to the dynamics of difference, the on-going development of cultural knowledge, and the
resources and flexibility within service models to meet the needs of minority groups Dana
& Allen (2008).

3.4 Key Elements of Cultural Competency
Meeting the standard of cultural competence involves more than just fulfilling an equal
opportunities requirement: i.e. recruiting staff members representing the various cultures

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being served. Neither does personnel training on the familiarity of cultural groups
necessarily guarantee it. Although both are important, culturally competent agencies go
further than just hiring or personnel development to embedding a sustainable mechanism
into the organisational structure that promote continuous learning of multicultural
challenges (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2003). King, Sims & Osher
(2006) propose that there are five elements that contribute to an organisations ability to
provide bespoke service to diverse communities. This includes:

Valuing diversity
Cultural self-assessment
Consciousness of the social dynamics of cultural interaction
Institutionalization of cultural knowledge
Adapt to diversity.

Valuing diversity: means reaching beyond an individual’s looks or appearance and
placing value on their behaviours, ideas and outlook. People come from different
background and their customs, thoughts and ways of communicating vary accordingly.
Culture strongly affects the choices that individuals make hence placing value on a
person’s innate trait and appearance signifies that an organisation accepts and respect
cultural differences at every level .This puts any firm in a good position to provide
effective and equal public service (Honey, 2005).

Cultural self-assessment: Involves assessing those attitudes, practices and policies
inherent in an organisations structure that might be detrimental towards cultural
competent programmes. The ability to engage in self-assessment can be used as a yard
stick to gauge the effectiveness to which the needs and preferences of diverse groups
are met. Through self-assessment, organisations and employees are able see how their
actions affect people from other cultural groups. This reduces the chances of alleged foul

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play and helps foster partnerships between firms and key community stakeholder
Kumagai & Lypson (2009).

Consciousness of the social dynamics of cultural interaction
Van de Vijver & Phalet (2004) maintain that the consciousness of the social dynamics of
cultural interaction is also a major initiative towards competence. There are many factors
that can affect cross-cultural interaction i.e. acculturation. An individual from an ethnic
minority group is likely to be saddled with the decision of either establishing a good
relationship with the dominant culture or maintaining a good relationship with his or her
native culture. Biases based on past historical cultural experiences have a way of
impeding an individual’s attempt to establish relationships with the dominant culture
Berry & Berry (1997).There is often an air of mistrust between public bodies (i.e. The
Environment Agency and ethnic minority groups) which is often ignored by the latter
Sjoberg (1999). Hence organisations need to be aware of the inherent nature of group
dynamics (King, Sims & Osher, 2006).

Institutionalization of cultural knowledge:
Knowledge gained in regards to culture and group behaviour must be incorporated into
every facet of an agency. Personnel’s must be trained to exploit the knowledge gained
from programmes. Likewise management should implement policies that are receptive to
diversity (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2003)

Adapt to diversity: The fifth element of cultural competency focuses on changing
activities to fit the cultural beliefs and norms of a community. This entails the
development or alteration of a service delivery system that echoes the understanding of
cultural diversity (Texas Commision on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, 2010).


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Cross, Bazron, Dennis and Isaacs (1989) sees cultural competency as an evolving
process that develops along a negative – positive scale. There are six possibilities
starting from one end (negative) to the other end (positive). However, most public
agencies are still at the cultural blind stage due to the pursuit of equal service. Rice
(2006) posits that the incorporation of cultural competence into public administration is
lacking because the discipline views cultural differences in public service delivery as
unlawful and negative. Traditionally, public administration has always advocated for
neutrality / equality in service delivery and this inadvertently promotes cultural blindness:
a stage where differences are ignored or treated the same and thereby meeting the
needs and demands of only the dominant group.

Figure 2 : Cultural competency cycle

Cultural proficiency






Cultural incapacity


Cultural Pre
Cultural blindness



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The focus on cultural competence in the United Kingdom public sector is one which is
slowly growing. Therefore the concept is still in its early stages and yet to be fully
integrated into civil service procedures. The same is applicable to the subject of study
(Environment Agency) as it finds it a continued challenge in producing flood warning
messages that match the needs and perception of culturally determined behaviours. UK
Public agencies are bound to see a change in customer demography as other countries
lobby to join the European Union Vanhorenbeeck (2007). As a result, the need to
promote a competent service delivery system cannot be underestimated (West London
Mental Health NHS Trust, 2007).

3.5 Risk communication / Multiculturalism: The Environment Agency perspective
Ivy & Petersen (2007) defines:
Risk communication as an interactive process of exchange of
information and opinion among individuals, groups and institutions. It
involves the … messages about the nature of risk and other messages
not strictly that expresses concerns, opinions or reactions to risk
messages (p.2).

While Ropeik (2008) describes it as “Actions, words and other interactions that
incorporate and respect the perceptions of the information recipients intended to help
people make informed decisions about threats to their health and safety”( p.58 ).

Most major incidences have resulted in the public taking some actions that were
inappropriate or unwarranted and resulted in tragedy. According to the National
Research Council (1989), these events i.e. (Bhopal and Love canal) have even occurred
at disasters that had no apparent threat to life yet still had adverse impact because the

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public were not provided with adequate information of the hazard Morrow (2009). The
communication of risk has become an integral part of disaster risk reduction particularly
in the wake of recent tragic disasters. It continues to be a vital non- structural measure
which plays an important part in contingency planning Mileti (1992). However the latter is
a major challenge for the Environment Agency in a mixed cultural contemporary society.
The dilemma faced is providing a flood risk communication service that takes culturally
determined behaviours / socio-economic status into consideration Perry & Lindell (1991).
Conversely for one to do that, a social mechanism for identifying vulnerable groups and
then building relationships needs to be established prior to an incidence (Environment
Agency, 2004a).

Most public bodies i.e. The Environment Agency have long focused on structural
measures of risk management and as stated in the (Bye Speech 7 May 1999,
Leamington Spa).

“If the Environment Agency, as a learning organisation, is able to shift the balance
of it’s responses from engineering towards human solutions, there is a greater
probability that more people will be better protected from a major environmental
threat.” (Twigger – Rose, 2009, p.2)

In recent times, there has been a change in focus from holding back water to learning to
live with flooding incidences with the rationale that physical flood defences will not
provide the only solution to flooding events but a mixture of both structural and nonstructural
measures (Defra, 2007). However the non-structural measure of risk
management (public awareness and risk information) is a major challenge for the
Environment Agency as it becomes increasingly difficult to break through the barriers of a
mixed society (Twigger – Rose,2002). The mistake most government agencies make is
that they assume that everyone is able to understand their emergency warning

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messages. As a result, they assume an undifferentiated approach in risk communication
which in theory is not fit for purpose in a multi-cultural society Fothergill, Meastas and
Darlington (1999). A community cannot be treated as one target group as in reality it
consists of various groups of people with different perceptions Clerveaux, Katanda &
Spence (2010). Therefore issues which may help account for differences in perception /
risk decision making need to be researched prior to a risk communication project Teike

3.51 Challenges and Obstacles
Risk communication is a major part of the Environment Agency’s work. The public
themselves are expected do much of the flooding prevention work such as making a
flood plan, stock piling of sandbags, signing up on flood warning systems (Environment
Agency , 2010c). Therefore it is important individuals are supplied with adequate
information on the warning codes and what to do at every stage of a flooding incidence
Environment Agency Wales, 2000). Reaching everyone is often difficult due to cultural
obstacles and as hypothesized by Forzdar & Roberts (2010) there is habitually an air of
distrust between ethnic minority groups and government personnel. Kasperson, Golding
and Tuler (1992) maintains that distrust in emergency management often leads to
reduced information exchange and the fact that the Environment Agency is a public body
and even less known among the public makes it quite difficult in building relationships
with vulnerable communities (Robertson,2008). Following a recent study by the
Environment Agency, staffs across departments are now begn supported and
encouraged in their work with communities, however best practices are still yet to be
achieved. Staff expressed concern for being inadequately trained for some aspects of
public participation and the lack of knowledge of building / sustaining relationship with
ethnic minority groups. Many communities can be insular and may not be interested in
the subject being communicated and a lack of confidence and fear of the unknown on
behalf of the people trying to engage was also seen as a blockage (Environment Agency,

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2004a). In some cases the sheer scale of the task was daunting and it was accepted that
it was impossible in some cases to engage with everyone. The community may be
disengaged and more concerned with everyday issues such as housing and
employment, so other issues are seen as less important East, Howe, James and
Nicholson (2009).

A vast amount of research has been carried out on the complexities of communicating
risk in a multicultural society and various theoretical perspectives have confirmed the
pragmatic evidence in the interplay between socio-cultural features and risk responses
Vaughan (1995). In a survey carried out to explore the best practice in emergency risk
communication used across the UK, it was identified that there was a vast amount of
existing materials that are effective in warning and informing the public about impending
danger. Among those included were public awareness initiatives used by the
Environment agency i.e. Phone calls, drop in sessions, mass media (i.e. television and
newspapers), social networks (i.e. Extended family friends and neighbours, parish
councillor’s religious and community leaders and interest groups) and public awareness
campaigns i.e. Risk communication leaflets / publications and personal contacts
Richardson, Reilly & Jones (2003). In a recent research carried out by the agency to
ascertain the effectiveness of these initiatives, it was discovered that some of these
techniques were identified as more successful than the other. Among the unsuccessful
initiatives includes leafleting, phone calls and drop in sessions. This was attributed to the
generic communication methods which assumed everyone spoke English or has access
to a particular technology. While relative success was recorded in initiatives which
involved engaging with business and community leaders as a platform for community
engagement community. In some cases a very local approach was reported as
successful, for example stands in shopping centres, where the contact could be
incidental to something else which people were doing. The use of the media was also
seen as successful especially when specific media outlets and programmes which

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targeted a particular community were used in disseminating information East, Howe,
James & Nicholson (2010).

3.6 Factors affecting flood risk communication
In a recent research conducted in the aftermath of the Cumbria floods of 2009 to assess
the effectiveness of on-going communications in areas affected by the flooding. It was
noted that change in flood response behaviour depended on a number of personal and
social factors such as:
3.61 Experience of flooding - Positive and Negative Affect:
Those residents who had previously experienced flooding were more likely to have
prepared their home and were more responsive to flood warnings (Environment Agency,
2010 b).
3.62 Efficacy
Residents often felt that preparatory actions would not be effective against a major flood,
and therefore felt they were of little value (Environment Agency, 2010 b).
3.63 Habits and heuristics
Assumptions about the risk of flooding were skewed towards believing the most positive
outcome (i.e. ‘it won’t happen to me’). Community engagement work in the local area
prior to the 2009 floods helped to ensure that residents became more vigilant to, and
engaged with, their flood risk (Environment Agency, 2010 b).

A similar research conducted for the 38th DEFRA Flood & Coastal Management
Conference maintains that the following below could be major factors affecting flood risk
3.64 Cost benefits analysis
People generally weigh up the cost of vulnerability to a risk with its benefits (Richardson,
Reilly and Jones, 2003).
3.65 Social norms

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