EU agencies discuss need for greater public trust in their work

Written by Martin Banks on 20 October 2017 in News

The European ombudsman, the EU’s official watchdog, says there is a need for greater public trust in the work of EU agencies.

EU flag | Photo credit: Press Association

Emily O’Reilly was speaking at a debate in Brussels on how the EU’s agencies can implement the “highest ethical and transparency standards so as to protect themselves from reputational damage.”

The EU’s decentralised agencies were set up to perform technical and scientific tasks that help the EU institutions implement policies and take decisions.

They are designed to help guarantee food safety, exposure to chemicals and medicines as well as the integrity of economic sectors like the financial sector and the reliability of products to consumers.

But, O’Reilly, who organised the discussion, pointed out that public trust in their work “is paramount.”

The Irish official told the meeting, “There is a consensus that greater transparency of the information that agencies process, combined with exchange and broad collaboration with stakeholders is crucial for establishing trust. The public expects not just information but a reliable explanation of what this means for them.”

She added, “In a context where lobbying is intense, there is also an expectation that agencies providing advice that guides policy decisions have the highest procedural standards and operate with the utmost independence.”

The Strasbourg-based ombudsman pointed out that her office has looked at issues like transparency, independence and governance in various EU agencies.

The response from agencies has “typically been very positive and they are keen to apply the highest standards.”

On the question of whether EU agencies’ relationship with industry is too close, O’Reilly pointed to a at times lack of awareness among staff working in EU institutions and agencies of the sometimes hugely influential role industry plays in shaping policy decisions and how it does so.

Her office, she said, has tried to help EU agencies to ensure they work in a fully independent manner. It has also tried to highlight a best practise approach to engaging with representatives from industry groups.

She pointed out that she had drafted practical recommendations for EU staff for how to deal with lobbyists.

Another keynote speaker, Bernhard Url, executive director of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), told the conference that there is a “general decline in trust in both public institutions and in economic actors like industry and corporations.”

EFSA, he said, realises that it needs to ensure public trust in its work.

It does both by focusing on “competence” - the quality of its work - but also on “character” - the way in which it carries out its work.

He noted that there is a specific challenge - in terms of ensuring trust - where science meets values. In such situations, the debate becomes based on emotions, as well as facts, he said.

EFSA, said Url, aims to “deliver high quality scientific work, relying on the best experts in the member states, using a rigorous methodology, and attempting to include the broadest possible evidence.”

It aims to ensure that the way in which it works is as transparent as possible and makes as much information as possible available on its website, he said.

This is crucial not just for public trust but also for the scientific process, with a view to allowing scrutiny of its work.

EFSA, he pointed out, also has a very rigorous policy on independence and addressing conflicts of interests.

Url argued that science needs to be communicated but “that this is not enough” as there is also a need to engage stakeholders and the public in the process.

EFSA, therefore, is looking at ways of co-creating research, such as through “community-sourcing”.

Jukka Malm, deputy executive director of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), said that ECHA has realised the importance of ensuring public trust in its work since the outset of its work, 10 years ago.

He argued that “openness, honesty and independence are crucial” for ensuring public trust.

ECHA, said Malm, aims to make its work fully transparent: not only the results of research and recommendations it has already carried out, but also looking forward to what work it is planning to carry out, as well as the processes involved.

This way, he suggested, interested parties and stakeholders can contribute to its work.

“Making its work public is not enough on its own. ECHA also actively works to engage with stakeholders. In addition to running public consultations, it also has a system of accredited stakeholder organisations, which feed into its assessment work and be observers on its committees.”

He argued that there is “clearly” a balance to be struck between the need to ensure the best expertise, which can come from the industry, and avoiding undue influence from stakeholders.

Monique Goyens, director general of the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), argued that a primary motivation for EU agencies should be putting the interests of consumers and the wider public first.

She said that the EU agencies perform well in this regard but highlighted two challenges for their work: balanced stakeholder representation and the heavy reliance on data from industry.

Goyens told the conference on Wednesday that while there is a “good reason” for industry stakeholders to be involved in the process, there is a perceived over-representation and this needs to be balanced.

Agencies, she said, are working to address this by making themselves more accessible to organisations representing public interest issues and improving how they operate to enable these organisations to better feed into the process.

She said EU agencies are not only under pressure from industry lobbies but also sometimes from politicians and national authorities.

On the over-reliance of data and information from industry, Goyens asked whether it should not be a priority to increase public funding for truly independent research. She also argued that, where there is a predominant reliance on data provided by the industry, agencies must play a role in holding the industries accountable and ensuring they make their work as transparent as possible.

Further contribution came from Tracey Brown, director at Sense about Science, who told participants that regulatory agencies are facing “much greater exposure” to public scrutiny and that they need to adapt to this reality.

She criticised politicians for abandoning agencies to take responsibility for decisions they take.

Brown argued that there was a need to draw greater attention to the clash between scientific evidence and value-based judgements.

Pointing out that the scope for evidence can be limited by the political debate. She argued that, to counter this, agencies need to focus on truly addressing questions that are relevant for the public regarding their work.

The official expressed “concern” that there appeared to be a growing divide between scientists and experts and the public.

Experts cannot expect the public to trust them if they have a distrust of the public, it was said.

All speakers agreed that there is a need to “strike a balance between the crucial expertise in industry and the need for assessment of this expertise to be independent.”

An important issue raised in the debate was whether there should be a greater focus on ensuring independent scientific research.

Given the current resource constraints, Martin Pigeon, from the Brussels-based Corporate Europe Observatory, suggested a public fund could be created, based on a levy on involved industrial sectors, with a view to funding this research.

Both Url and Malm said that while they would welcome such an approach, but that it would require political will.

As an interim measure, Url proposed that there could be a greater focus on auditing the work of those facilities currently carrying research, with a view to ensuring their work is truly reliable.


About the author

Martin Banks is a senior reporter for the Parliament Magazine


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