International Association for Impact Assessment

What’s the best advice you ever received about impact assessment?

  • Guest post by Marla Orenstein, President-Elect

    What’s the best advice you ever received about impact assessment?

    I am thrilled to see that IAIA’s Students & Young Professionals Section is growing and thriving. This is important—both the profession and our organization need the contribution and ideas of younger members.

    When we get to Montreal in just a few weeks, I would urge our members who are in the prime or legacy stages of their careers to purposefully seek out and befriend or help our more junior members. This could be through an offer to introduce them to people you know, through answering their questions about technical challenges, or through providing reassurance that the difficulties they face are not theirs alone. (And similarly, I urge our more junior members to be bold in reaching out to others at the conference, including people who seem very senior and/or scary.)

    In this spirit, I want to dedicate this month’s guest blog to the topic of: “What is the Best  Advice You Ever Received About Impact Assessment?” In addition to the examples below, my hope is that you will also chime in on IAIAConnect with your own words of wisdom.

    To lead with, here’s some excellent advice offered by the prolific Ben Harris-Roxas:

    The advice I received that’s most relevant to IA is that you need to be both an expert and a generalist. Be good (or at least competent) at a broad range of data collection, consultation, facilitation, and reporting activities, but make sure you have a depth of expertise in one or two topics.

    Martin Birley, who (I contend) enjoys being controversial, gave me two pieces of advice when I was first starting out in impact assessment. The first is:

    Better an HIA written on the back of an envelope that gets used than a large tome that sits on a bookcase and isn't used.

    While I suspect Martin has never turned in a report literally written on the back of an envelope or napkin, I completely concur with this advice. I have seen many instances in which a concise and informative report has a much greater effect on decision-making than a longer, more comprehensive report, simply because the contents are easier for decision-makers to digest and act upon.

    Martin’s second piece of advice is also controversial. The way he phrased it in an informal conversation was:

    You can get the assessment wrong, as long as you get the recommendations right.

    Martin sees this issue as being about justifiable recommendations—that the justification can be off as long as the result is an improvement in outcomes. Our predictions about impacts may turn out to be incorrect for a number of reasons: limited data, poor methodology, changing circumstances, happenstance, etc. We may predict a change of 10%, when in reality the change turns out to be 4% or 25%. What is more important than accuracy in predicting the degree of change, says Martin, is developing appropriate mitigations that help the community to avoid or manage any adverse effects stemming from that change.

    The last piece of advice I am going to share was told to me by one of my early mentors with respect to writing grant proposals. However, it applies to all kinds of technical writing, including IA reports.

    Everything is a story. It isn’t enough just to present facts; you need to help your reader understand WHY you are presenting that particular information, what it means, and what the implications are.

    What would be some advice about the practice or process of impact assessment that you would like to share?

    Marla Orenstein, Habitat Health Impact Consulting, Canada, currently serves as President-Elect on the IAIA Board of Directors.







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