Impact assessment in governments: literature review

This report reviews literature regarding five types of policy level impact assessments (environment, equity, health, regulatory, rural) in five countries (Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden & Wales). It was commissioned by the Scottish Government to inform their approach to impact assessment.

2. What impact assessments are required?

This section considers what forms of impact assessments are required at the policy level in the different countries; whether and how the different countries' impact assessment systems are integrated; and what topics are covered by equality impact assessments[1].

2.1 Assessment required at policy level

Tables 2.1-2.5 summarise the policy-level impact assessments required in each country[2]. Strategic environmental assessment (SEA) is broadly limited to plans and programmes, in keeping with the remit of the European SEA Directive. SEA of policies is also carried out in Canada and possibly still some EU countries; these are therefore included in Table 2.1.

Table 2.1 Requirements for strategic environmental assessment ( SEA)
Ireland Policy-level SEA via RIA
Netherlands Previously assessed via an 'e-test' (Sadler 1995). Current practice limited at best.
New Zealand SEA indirectly required through Resource Management Act 1991. Climate change impact required for all Cabinet processes.
Sweden No legal requirement for strategic environmental assessment
Wales Assessment of impact on climate change generally required for policies
Canada SEA carried out for policies submitted to Cabinet or subject to ministerial decision
Denmark, Finland Applied SEA to some policies prior to the SEA Directive. Unclear whether this still takes place, or whether their assessment is now limited to plans and programmes (Sadler, 2005; European Commission n/d; Danish Ministry of Environment and Energy 1995)

Ireland, New Zealand and Wales are the only countries reviewed here that carry out equality impact assessments (EqIA) of their policies. In all three countries, and in the US, this is done as part of a wider impact assessment (regulatory, well-being, environmental). Northern Ireland is a leader in EqIA, due in part to its history of sectarian conflict, with concern that Protestants were getting better treatment than Catholics (Equality Coalition, 2013).

Table 2.2 Requirements for equality impact assessment ( EqIA)
Ireland Carried out as part of regulatory impact assessment or equivalent: considers socially excluded or vulnerable groups (gender, poverty, disabilities, rural communities), North-South and East-West relations (Cabinet Handbook, 2006, App. III). Some 'equality budgeting' carried out (OECD, 2019)
Netherlands Some gender mainstreaming
New Zealand Population implications assessment required for each Cabinet proposal
Sweden Some gender mainstreaming
Wales EqIAs are one way – but not the only way – for a public authority to demonstrate compliance with the Public Sector Equality Duty (House of Commons, 2020). Equality is one of seven well-being goals in the Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.
Northern Ireland Northern Ireland was an early leader in EqIA with its 1993 'Policy Appraisal and Fair Treatment' (PAFT) initiative. Sec. 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 requires the preparation of EqIAs where policies could have an adverse impact on nine equality groups. Completed EqIAs are made public by the Northern Ireland Assembly.
United States National Environmental Policy Act includes requirement to assess 'environmental justice' implications of federal 'actions'. Environmental Protection Agency (2016) published recommendations on doing this.

All of the countries have health impact assessment guidance for the policy level, but only Wales has something approaching a requirement.

Table 2.3 Requirements for health impact assessment
Ireland Guidance by Institute of Public Health in Ireland (2009), but no requirement and area of application (policy v plan) unclear.
Netherlands Unable to find requirement or guidance for policy level
New Zealand Guidance by Public Health Advisory Committee (2005) aims "to ensure that health and wellbeing are considered as part of policy development in all sectors", but no requirement.
Sweden Berensson and Tillgren, (2017) state that "Central agencies and all of Sweden's county administrative boards have been directed by the government to implement HIA within their own remits", but the Sweden National Institute for Public Health Advice (2005) guidance states that HIA "may relate to new legislation, economic instruments or the focus of a particular policy area" (our emphasis).
Wales HIA is required through the Public Health (Wales) Act 2017. Two of the well-being goals in the Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 concern health (Green et al. 2020), but it is not clear if policies require well-being assessment.

Regulatory impact assessment (RIA) is the form of assessment most frequently applied to policies, with all of the countries requiring some form of RIA. The breadth of RIA varies: for instance, Sweden's RIAs are limited to financial impacts on various stakeholders; and Irish RIAs are expected to also consider socially excluded and vulnerable groups, rural communities etc. Dutch RIAs previously considered environmental impacts (Sadler 1995), but a 'streamlining' of the RIA system in 2011 means that RIA in the Netherlands is now mostly limited to impacts on businesses (OECD, 2020). The UK and US are unusual in using cost-benefit techniques for their RIAs (Radaelli, 2009a).

Table 2.4 Requirements for regulatory impact assessment
Ireland RIA required by the Cabinet Handbook, 2006, Appendix III). Applies to
  • proposals for primary legislation involving changes to the regulatory framework
  • significant Statutory Instruments
  • proposals for EU Directives and significant EU Regulations when they are published by the European Commission
Policy Review Groups bringing forward proposals for legislation are also expected to carry out RIAs
Netherlands RIA applies to ministries' new proposals for regulations through the Integraal Afwegingskader (IAK) 2011
New Zealand Regulatory Impact Statement required for any proposals that involve potential introduction of new legislation. Guidance on RIA exists and "government expects that government regulatory agencies… will have regard to, and give appropriate effect to, these good regulation principles" (New Zealand Government, 2017).
Sweden Ordinance on Regulatory Impact Assessment applies to government and agencies, for (binding) regulations and (non-binding) general guidelines, i.e. soft law (Van der Sluijs, 2017)
Wales Regulatory Impact Code 2009 requires RIA for 'subordinate legislation', i.e. "made by Welsh Ministers, the First Minister or the Counsel General and the statutory instrument (or a draft of the statutory instrument) containing it is required to be laid before the Assembly"

Ireland, New Zealand and Northern Ireland (not one of the five case study countries included within this review but at least having something like rural impact assessment) require 'rural proofing'.

Table 2.5 Requirements for rural/islands impact assessment
Ireland Cabinet Handbook (2006) requires analysis of impacts on "the physical, economic and social conditions of people living in the open countryside, in "coastal" areas, towns and villages and in smaller urban centres outside of the five major urban areas (i.e. Cork, Dublin, Galway, Limerick and Waterford)." The 2016 Programme for Partnership Government also notes that "The new impact assessment guidelines will have to take account of impacts on rural Ireland as well as other socio-economic factors".
Netherlands No requirement
New Zealand Population implications assessment includes impacts on rural communities
Sweden No requirement
Wales No requirement
Northern Ireland Government must have 'due regard to rural needs' when:
  • Developing a policy, strategy or plan
  • Adopting a policy, strategy or plan
  • Implementing a policy, strategy or plan
  • Revising a policy, strategy or plan
  • Designing a public service
  • Delivering a public service

Other forms of impact assessment used in other countries include:

  • The United States' long-established system of assessing 'environmental justice' through its EIA/SEA process. This requires federal agencies to identify and address "disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations", including Indian tribes (EPA, 1994).
  • The Welsh Well-being of Future Generations Act 2015 which requires regional Public Service Bodies to prepare free-standing 'well-being assessments' of their areas.
  • Welsh language impact assessments carried out in response to the Welsh Language Standards.
  • New Zealand's Climate Implications of Policy Assessment Requirements 2020, which apply to "policy options or proposals where:
    • decreasing greenhouse gas emissions has been identified as a key policy objective; or
    • the direct impact on greenhouse gas emissions is likely to be equal to or above 0.5 million tonnes CO2-e within the first ten years of the proposal period; or
    • the direct impact on greenhouse gas emissions is likely to be equal to or above 3 million tonnes of CO2-e within the first 30 years of the proposal period for forestry related proposals"[3].

2.2 Integration of impact assessments

Although many of the countries' impact assessments are free-standing – for instance health impact assessments tend to consider only health – in a few cases one form of assessment encompasses several topics. Figure 2.1 summarises these cases.

Figure 2.1. Integration of assessment types (where this exists)

Diagram of how in the US, New Zealand, Wales & Ireland, one type of assessment encompasses others

Environment and health or equality: In EU countries, SEA is not required at the policy level, but the consideration of health and climate issues within SEA is an obvious potential form of integrated assessment. The US concept of 'environmental justice' brings together environmental, quality and health issues. Executive Order 12989 provides that "each Federal agency shall make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations". The Council on Environmental Quality (1997) provides further information on how this should be done. Bhatia and Wernham (2008) found that integrated environmental and health assessments can result in new policies and regulatory measures that promote health. Examples of analyses of environmental justice – not necessarily examples that had an impact on the ground, but that show the kinds of issues involved – include:

  • Plans for the growth of Oklahoma City, which would most likely worsen the African American population's relative access to community parks (Comer and Skraastad-Jurney, 2008);
  • Hispanic residents being disproportionately subject to high levels of nitrates in drinking waters (Shaider et al., 2019).

A range of academics have called for stronger links between SEA and HIA (e.g. Iglesias-Merchan and Dominguez-Ares 2020). In France, a guide has been developed to better link health and environmental assessment at an urban planning level, focusing on determinants of health (e.g. social cohesion, democracy, safety/security) (Roué Le Gall et al. 2018; EHESP 2016)[4].

Regulatory, environment and equality: Irish regulatory impact assessments include a consideration of equality and environmental assessment of policies. The Irish Cabinet Handbook 2006 states that:

"A full RIA involves a detailed and rigorous analysis of costs and benefits and their distribution. It should examine and measure costs, benefits and other impacts of the options being considered under the following headings:

a) national competitiveness including employment;

b) the socially excluded or vulnerable groups including gender equality, poverty, people with disabilities and rural communities;

c) the environment;

d) whether the proposal involves a significant policy change in an economic market including impacts on competition and consumers;

e) North-South, East-West relations;

f) the rights of citizens/human rights;

g) compliance burden on third parties e.g. citizens and business."

Well-being of future generations: The Welsh concept of the wellbeing of future generations is the most overarching form of impact assessment integration found in this study. The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 does not require a wellbeing assessment of policies. However it requires (amongst other things) public bodies to set well-being objectives, and requires public service boards for each Welsh local authority to assess well-being in their area. The well-being goals listed in the Act incorporate several other dimensions:

1. A prosperous Wales: An innovative, productive and low carbon society which recognises the limits of the global environment and therefore uses resources efficiently and proportionately (including acting on climate change)…

2. A resilient Wales: A nation which maintains and enhances a biodiverse natural environment with healthy functioning ecosystems that support social, economic and ecological resilience and the capacity to adapt to change (for example climate change).

3. A healthier Wales: A society in which people's physical and mental well-being is maximised and in which choices and behaviours that benefit future health are understood.

4. A more equal Wales: A society that enables people to fulfil their potential no matter what their background or circumstances (including their socio economic background and circumstances).

5. A Wales of cohesive communities: Attractive, viable, safe and well-connected communities.

6. A Wales of vibrant culture and thriving Welsh language…

7. A globally responsible Wales: A nation which, when doing anything to improve the economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales, takes account of whether doing such a thing may make a positive contribution to global well-being.

The Act specifically aims to articulate and translate the 17 UN sustainable development goals into goals for Wales (Welsh Government 2019). This is consistent with other calls for greater integration of sustainable development goals into SEA/EIA (Morrison-Saunders et al. 2020).

Other forms of impact assessment integration include:

  • SEA widened to cover social and economic issues as "sustainability appraisal" in England and Wales (UK Government 2015);
  • ecosystem services assessment integrated into SEA and economic analyses (Partidario and Gomes 2013; Kumar et al. 2013; Therivel and Gonzalez 2020):
  • privacy impact assessment (e.g. protection of personal data and privacy) and ethical impact assessment (e.g. prevention of bias in algorithms, ethics of replacing humans with machines) when considering the impacts of emerging technologies (Wright and Friedewald 2013);
  • social impact assessment and human rights assessment (right to health, education, work etc. as set out in the International Bill of Human Rights and labour conventions of the International Labour Organisation) (Götzmann et al. 2015). This is already partly done in Irish regulatory impact assessments which require consideration of "the rights of citizens/human rights"; and
  • equality assessment and poverty proofing, recommended for Ireland by the OECD (2019).

The academic literature (e.g. Martens, 2017, 2020; Vanoutrive and Cooper, 2019) also includes an interesting discussion around the topic of 'transport justice' – which encompasses poverty and access to services, and which brings together concepts of free exchange (market principles) and justice (insurance against bad brute luck).

2.3 Coverage of equality and health impact assessments

The different countries' equality assessment requirements vary. The Dutch and Swedish assessments relate only to gender. Information on gender impact assessment in Sweden is limited, but in the Netherlands Roggeband and Verloo (2006) argue that gender impact assessment has been restricted to considering women as vulnerable victims, without considering the more contentious issues of the division of labour, sexuality, intimacy and reproduction.

New Zealand's population implications assessment requirements refer to "Māori (as individuals, iwi, hapū, and whanau), children, seniors, disabled people, women, people who are gender diverse, Pacific peoples, veterans, rural communities, and ethnic communities". The Irish Cabinet Handbook 2006 refers to "the socially excluded or vulnerable groups including gender equality, poverty, people with disabilities and rural communities".

The Welsh Equality Act includes a (non-statutory) public sector equality duty, including assessment of the impact of proposed policies on nine 'protected characteristic groups': age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation. Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 refers to nine slightly different equality categories: religious belief, political opinion, racial group, age, marital status, sexual orientation, gender, disability and dependency.

In Ireland, an earlier focus on the impacts of policies on poverty has been replaced with 'social impact assessments' of the main welfare measures and direct tax measures in the annual budget. Reasons for this transition include the use of social impact assessment in Europe for mainstreaming social inclusion in public policy; the extension of poverty impact assessment to other dimensions of social inequality such as age and gender; and facilitation of greater policy coordination (Johnson 2017). Ireland's annual assessment of the distributional impact of the tax and welfare policies in the budget uses the tax/welfare microsimulation model SWITCH, which takes account of expenditure on public services, and compares the distributional impact of changes to various types of public services and the implications for household incomes (Johnson 2017). An excellent analysis of economic inequality in Ireland (though not an impact assessment of a policy) considers the interrelated factors of income, wealth, public services, tax, capacities, family composition and the costs of goods and services (TASC, 2017).

In terms of HIA, Morgan (2008) and Mahoney and Morgan (2001) distinguish between HIA as a tool for assessing the environmental health implications (primarily of projects) and as a way of promoting health in a wider social and economic context, particularly at the policy level. In Wales, these two approaches are referred to as the 'tight' and 'broad' models of HIA.



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