Politicians and public risk

Written and researched by Galina Andreeva, Jake Ansell and Tina Harrison – October 2009

Politicians represent a diverse group, including government as well as opposition.  In the UK there are a number of interacting bodies: Westminster Parliament, Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, Northern Irish Assembly and Local Authorities.  There are a number of institutions outside UK which have impact: UN, European Parliament, WTO, WHO and others.  This paper focuses on politicians in government but many of the observations apply to other politicians. 

Politicians’ motivations are complex but represent the wish to ensure that their message is carried to the public.  In the context of public risk they wish to be seen as responding appropriately.  They are often closer in perception of public risks to the public than to the ‘experts’, though, they may diverge on particular issues and may lead public opinion on others. 

The media plays a significant role in terms of coverage of politicians’ actions.  Other groups will also have an impact such as lobbyists and the public.

There is a need to understand the triggers that lead to the development of public risk and aspects of how they develop over time.  Timescale for action is an important issue in terms of response expected by the public. 

For the anxiety of the public to be allayed, the public needs to trust its politicians to serve their interests and protect their well being.   A response to this has been to encourage the public to participate in processes, though there is evidence to show this is not always effective. 

It is valuable to study past examples and consider the public’s reaction to politicians’ approaches.  It may be possible to determine what the public’s reaction is.  This should be investigated by further research. Further research is also needed to understand more fully how politicians become informed of public perception of risk, whether and in what ways they respond and the impact of their actions in terms of diminishing or escalating risk perceptions.

View the full research report here.