Finance

Public Information Management out there on the streets

July 31, 2014

What imposing fines for incorrect weather reports has to do with public information management is explained by Arco van de Ven in this column.

Did you happen to hear in the summer of 2012 of the proposal of the Dutch Labor Party group in Hoek van Holland to impose fines for incorrect weather reports? Proprietors allegedly missed out on around 100,000 Euro everyday because the beaches mistakenly remain empty. Of course, upon hearing a notice of this kind, one would automatically assume that it was a joke. But chairwoman Ineke Vos then indicates on BNR News Radio that she fails to understand how others do not grasp this. She admits, of course, that this crusade is meant as playful, but one with a serious overtone. And the proposal was subsequently withdrawn the next day, of course, with much less media focus.

You may perhaps ask yourself why this should be the subject of a column by a professor of Public Information Management? The summer is the off-season and every effort is made to attract media attention, especially if there are upcoming elections. But still. The proposal is, in my opinion, symptomatic for present times. Ill-considered and with many unfounded assumptions.

Negative sides of the risk society

It is an example of the negative sides of the risk society. In the risk society, discussions often focus on what can go wrong, instead of on how one can go about achieving one's goals. The focus is on the possible negative consequences of the actions of others. Grasping opportunities is repressed by an over-awareness of threats. The question is no longer about how to go about increasing the number of visitors to the lovely beaches of Hoek van Holland. Why not set up a site with web-cams to persuade visitors to come to the beach? Supplemented, perhaps, with reliable weather forecasts. No, the entire discussion is an exaggerated, too one-sided focus on extremely specific risks.

And what about the possible details and implementation. Think along with me for a minute. Which norms should we observe? A deviating average or maximum temperatures? And what should we consider: the weather reports of every weatherman per day, or part of the day, temperatures, or also forecasts on rain, lightning and hail? And will we need to measure and record the actual temperature at the various locations? Should we calibrate the measuring equipment? Who has the authority and the task to impose fines and how are these to be collected? Which organization is responsible for this task and how should things be organized? Who will supervise this organization? This sounds like a good exercise for a national exam in public information management (BIV).

Fines lead to change in behavior?

And then there are the fines, of course. It is assumed more and more often that imposing fines will result in a change in behavior. But will weathermen become better at predicting the weather when facing potential fines? Will they proceed to use different models? Or will the weather service, once the fines apply, indicate not to be responsible for local variations and unforeseen weather changes. After all, there is nothing as unpredictable as the weather.  Although the cry for fines and sanctions is ever-increasing in practice, studies show that behavior is not that easy to change.  And that many undesired dysfunctional effects may occur as well. One known effect concerns the crowding-out effect as documented by the Swiss economist Bruno Frey. The fine represses the intrinsic motivation to do the job well. The consideration then becomes a purely economic rationalization: ‘am I willing to spend the money?’ New regulations will only lead to more undesired behavior in this way. The motto is that fines and sanctions may work, but that the use of these must be defined with due consideration.

And so you see, the interesting subject of Public Information Management is out there on the streets, even in the off-season.

This column was previously published in the Controllersmagazine.

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