Review of Susan Hadden, A Citizen's Right to Know.  (Boulder, CO: Westview press)

By Jeremy R.T. Lewis

Draft as submitted: October 21, 1989.
Published in Policy Studies Journal, 17(4):952-954 (Summer 1989)

Susan G. Hadden. 1989. A Citizen's Right to Know: Risk Communication and Public Policy (Boulder, CO: Westview Press) xvi + 236 pp.; ISBN 0-8133-0913-1 (cloth). $27.95.

Susan Hadden has graced us with a lively and crisply written interim study of a program enacted only three years before the book appeared. The work principally covers the 1986 Federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know law requiring the gathering and dissemination of information about hazardous chemicals stored in the workplace. Along the way it explains with admirable clarity a number of associated issues: the coming revolution in disseminating government databases via computers and modems to the citizenry; and the pressures involved in collecting and distributing a mass of data on a topic where there is high emotional stress but precious little scientific knowledge.

The work is easily accessible to environmentalists, undergraduate and MPA students, and scholars of public policy, and Professor Hadden has included a chapter of suggestions for improvements in procedure. The entire text is free of jargon, and shows a gift for cutting through the technical difficulties of the thousands of chemicals which have to be catalogued by the EPA and private businesses; or of the incompatible computer systems which bedevil government agencies. The data are from interviews in situ or by telephone, and from surveys explained in the appendix.

The two state cases selected make a useful contrast: New Jersey provided the model for the federal legislation, and had some success with limited resources; while Texas had an undernourished and disorganized program which followed the introduction of the federal law. Neither the designers of these programs nor those of the federal programs had much idea of the scale of private sector chemical inventories, or of the contrasting needs for information presented by rapid emergency response planning and broad citizen knowledge. No provision was made for funding the substantial effort that would be required.

The book examines the three-way tensions between the gathering of information for scientific research on toxicology; the need for speedy searching of that material for emergency response teams; and a newer, third factor, the idealistic drive for regulation via citizen information in the absence of coercive authority. Scientific research requires comprehensive data; emergency crews tackling a chemical spill need fast information of limited depth and therefore a limited database; and citizen access implies the database be accessible and the raw data be processed by analysts to permit graphing and explanation of complex chemical relationships.

The Act was passed following the Bhopal tragedy which exposed the risk of liability for thousands of deaths in the event of toxic chemical emissions, The chemical industry seems to have been persuaded for fear of liability to have gone along with the plan, but we need more data on industry perspectives, since industry has resisted other aspects of access laws. There are footnotes to testimony before congress, to law decisions at later stages in the book, but there might have been more citation of the designs of the sponsors of the Act, perhaps from the Congressional Record. It is less clear what pressures resulted in the expansion of the worker right to know into the community right to know. Ms. Hadden points to the PHILAPOSH coalition of Phildelphia environmentalists as taking an opportunity and providing a model for the federal government.

It is evident from her participant interviews that there were civil servants in federal and state agencies who took to the notion of citizen information with an enthusiasm which contradicts Max Weber's assertion that secrecy is the specific invention of the bureaucracy.

Two strengths are the discussion of delivering information to the public in electronic form, and of the difficulty of absorbing risk communication information among a non-scientific public. She takes a well chosen example, the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory database, which is to be the first major government resource designed from the start to provide sophisticated information to laypeople online. The varied interests, the incompatible report forms, the fear of information leading to emotive lawsuits, the limited budgets, and time constraints are all trenchantly observed. She also explains the frustrations of the CAMEO program, designed to model graphically the plume of toxic emission from a plant spreading towards a neighborhood, but which runs only on Macintosh microcomputers, not the more common PC compatibles.

The receiving end of communication receives due attention, although the perhaps not the degree of expertise in the environmental interest groups and trade unions. The unions are slow with chemical knowledge and computers, while the environmentalists are slicker, but remain an enigma in the volume. The question of whether deference to expertise really has sunk too low for a complex subject such as the connection between thousands of chemicals and the health of millions, the author answers with typical optimism and practicality: both the government and the private sector need to provide directed analytic information rather than excessive raw material.

She does not delve into the nature of "citizens" or "interest groups" as thoroughly as she might. The contrast between the rhetoric of citizen access to government information, and the unintended reality of heavy use by those large corporations and law firms who are often seen as their target, might have been drawn with heavier irony. She gives cost figures for reporting requirements, to which the Office of Management and Budget would undoubtedly have given greater weight.

While there is a glossary of acronyms, extensive endnotes, and a limited index, there is neither a bibliography nor a literature survey, which is a considerable disappointment. There might be added to a second edition, some discussion of the place of Right to Know in general access legislation both in the U.S. and abroad. In addition, there might be extended consideration of the changing nature of public administration, the decline of deference to expertise, the rise of responsive bureaucracies, and the rise of expertise within the public interest groups.

Prof. Hadden does not provide the fullest set of research concepts or empirical theory, but she ably categorizes and dissects the issues arising during implementation of the Community Right to Know legislation. The book lacks policy process models; but such models are better left until the data are cooler and results of the policy are firmer, and other scholars may construct them from fine case studies such as this.

Jeremy R.T. Lewis