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date: 24 February 2020

Understanding and Analyzing Natural Hazards Governance

Summary and Keywords

Governance is a complex, highly elastic term used in a wide range of settings which sometimes leads to ambiguity. As a result, defining natural hazards governance as a unique and specific construct is needed for conceptual clarity and analytic precision. At core, natural hazards governance pertains to two fundamental considerations: reducing risk and promoting resilience. While not always recognized as such in the hazards and disasters literature, risk reduction and resilience promotion are two pure public goods. But they are also highly complex public goods—amalgams of a series of distinct but interrelated public policy choices and the administrative systems that put those choices into effect.

To understand better a logic for defining and assessing natural hazards governance it is essential to consider it as a set of explicitly collective choices over the production of a complex of public goods aimed at addressing hazards risk reduction and promoting resilience within or across defined political jurisdictions. Those choices create frameworks permitting a set of authoritative actions (lawful and legitimate) to be stated and executed by governmental entities, by nongovernmental agents on their behalf (in some form), or for goods and services to be jointly co-produced by governmental and nongovernmental actors. Those collective choices in a given setting are influenced by the institutional structure of formal public policy decision-making, which itself reflects variations in the political efficacy of community members, competing interests and incentives over policy preferences, and level of extant knowledge and understanding of critical challenges associated with given hazards. Those formal collective choices are also reflective of a broader cultural context shaping norms of behavior and conception of the relationship between communities and hazards.

Keywords: Governance, natural hazards, disasters, disaster risk reduction, community resilience, public goods, emergency management, disaster management, co-production, systems integration


Governance is a complex, highly elastic term with multiple meanings applied across a range of settings. In common usage, it can refer to a hierarchy of decision-making authority within a specific organization (e.g., corporate governance), or to participation in the management of an organization’s operations (e.g., faculty governance in a university), or to a specific set of rules or regulations used to guide a specific process (e.g., governance of individual-level health records access and use). Governance also is used to refer to the institutional form by which governmental authority is structured, with additional specificity of usage depending on a particular scale being referenced. For instance, an individual country can be characterized as exhibiting a democratic or authoritarian governance model. Likewise, the structure of a macro-level institutional arrangement for a given national system defines a type of governance system (e.g., federal versus unitary structures). Additional authority relationships also can be characterized based on that structural arrangement (e.g., federal systems being described as having “shared governance” due to the decentralized set of subnational governmental units with defined formal authorities). Further still, the use of the governance term can refer to the specific object or substantive focus of the governance-related activities, such as climate change governance, environmental governance, or risk governance. And the manner by which collective decisions (typically authoritative decisions—meaning of a binding legal status) or other operational activities are arrived at can be characterized on process grounds. In those cases, we see the use of terms such as collaborative governance, adaptive governance, or network governance. Such object-oriented or process-oriented terms are used as means of explaining who participates, how that participation is enabled, and to what effect in a formal collective decision setting (i.e., a policy choice) or in specific operational activities (i.e., implementation of a policy or program) or both.

Because of this dizzying array of possible applications, one may be forgiven for sensing the term lacks a certain degree of precision. And equally important, one may be forgiven for asking why the term “natural hazards governance” should be added to the already teeming list of applicable uses. The argument presented here is that an explicit definition and analytic treatment of natural hazards governance as a distinct construct is warranted. Briefly, at a fundamental level natural hazards governance pertains to public goods production processes related to risk reduction and community resilience. Those two are closely interrelated processes—but are also distinct conceptually and in operational practice. Understanding the manner by which the production of those public goods is arrived at, to what effect, and how those dynamics are reflective of, and reflected in, human social relationships defines the domain of natural hazards governance. Recognizing explicitly this distinctive character provides a means of addressing how and why communities and political jurisdictions of all types confront and manage risk, vulnerability and resilience issues related to natural hazards and associated disruptions they cause for human and natural systems. Further, identifying natural hazards governance as a distinct construct permits assessment of how and why collective efforts are more or less effective in promoting greater sustainability and resilience. And finally, using natural hazards governance as a distinct area of focus helps facilitate an integrative understanding all aspects of collective decision-making relevant to the management of natural hazards, including formalized authority hierarchies (e.g., governmental agencies guided by public policy choices), nongovernmental actors’ contributions to policy choices and programmatic operations, and the effects of other key considerations such as cultural and social contexts.

A brief overview of how the governance construct has been used in the academic literature is provided in the section entitled “The Governance Concept in Context”. That discussion gives way to a short exposition of how natural hazards governance can be understood as choices over two pure public goods: risk reduction and resilience promotion. The question of how to study and assess natural hazards governance issues and practices is then reviewed before some brief considerations of how natural hazards governance may be improved are offered as a way of conclusion.

The Governance Concept in Context

Similar to the case of defining the term “disaster” (see Perry & Quarantelli, 2005), there is a good deal of attention in scholarship on public policy, management and administration devoted to the issue of competing definitions and uses of the “governance” concept. A detailed discussion of the subject is beyond the scope here, but it is useful to offer at least a cursory treatment to provide context for the purposes in this article. In what is generally considered the New Public Management movement and an associated emphasis on “governance” or “new governance” that came into focus in the 1990s (more or less), the basic conceptual, and occasionally normative, view was that the formal and rigid hierarchy of government had given way to alternative forms of authoritative decision-making, particularly those incorporating the direct input and expertise contributions of the business sector and civil society groups. An argument some scholars have made is that a fundamental transformation had occurred in the latter part of the 20th century and that government had been, in essence, supplanted by governance (for discussions, see Hill & Hupe, 2009; Pierre & Peters, 2000; Pollitt & Bouckaert, 2017; Swyngedouw, 2005).

While simplifying, one may argue there are somewhat “harder” and “softer” versions of the so-called transformational period of governance in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The divergence of perspective is mainly rooted in points of emphasis: scholars arguing that a new governance has modified formal governmental authority to such a degree that it should be relabeled or redefined (or at least be described as “hollow” or similar such terms) tend to emphasize that central governments have devolved key authorities to subnational governments or to nongovernmental sectors. By doing so, substantial portions of traditional government production and provision of public services lie in the hands of nongovernmental actors. As such, formal governmental hierarchical authority has been transformed into something of a blurred or shared or networked authority model (see Milward & Provan, 2003, as an illustrative example of this kind of argument). In other words, some scholars have taken the view that the change from government to governance is indeed a fundamental one, reflective of the limitations or failures of the traditional government hierarchies developed earlier in during the 20th century to produce and deliver services efficiently or effectively (see, e.g., John, 2001; Kettl, 2005; Rhodes, 1997; Stoker, 1991). Because this perspective, broadly speaking, emphasizes the specific notion that nongovernmental organizations are critical network actors in the actual production of public goods and services, the consequence is that treating government (i.e., a formal authority hierarchy with associated operational resources) as the primary entity for analysis when considering collective choices and operational actions is of some degree of limited utility.

Using a slightly different point of emphasis from this “governance-not-government” perspective is to treat the governance construct as an analytic frame for understanding the basic logic of how collective decisions are made through processes which include government and nongovernment actors alike (see, e.g., Heinrich & Lynn, 2000). A useful definition offered by Lynn, Heinrich, and Hill (2000, p. 3) does not emphasize supplanting government from the basic equation, but rather references a specific framework of authoritative action that is more complex than prior scholarly treatments (i.e., prior to the deregulatory, privatization, or contracting-out trends that started in the 1980s) of public policy as limited primarily to government actors. With this different emphasis, they define governance as referring to the “regimes of laws, administrative rules, judicial rulings, and practices that constrain, prescribe, and enable governmental activity, where such activity is broadly defined as the production of delivery of publicly supported goods and services.” In this “softer” version of the so-called transformation that occurred in public policy and management in the late 20th century, the importance of formal authority is retained and is still central. However, the means to publicly supported policies and goods is recognized as a more complex production process than requires attention to extra-governmental actors (again—in contrast to earlier scholarly traditions that focused primarily of formal governmental hierarchy as the point of analytic focus).

Though trying to reduce a complicated topic to several sentences is not always wise, the attempt here seeks to help illustrate, at least to a degree, what gives rise to variable interpretations and uses of the governance concept. While it is useful to note that arrangements leading to the production and delivery of public goods and services has become increasingly complex in the latter part of the 20th century and at the start of the 21st, the main concern here is with collective choices and actions (at whatever given formal jurisdictional unit or community is of interest) pertaining to the management of natural hazards. When focusing on that topic domain it is important to recognize several additional considerations as a means of providing context relevant to thinking about natural hazards governance.

First, arguments coming out of the late 20th century emphasizing the fundamental transformation of government are heavily indebted to a period of deregulation, denationalization of certain state-owned or operated enterprises, or heavier reliance on contracting out certain public services primarily in a handful of English-speaking countries. This means the debate about the nuances of interpreting “governance” or a “new governance” should be recognized as being rooted in a specific historical period with a limited number of countries as its primary referent. Second, as a result of the preceding point, it is fair to say that the specific experiences of several developed, Western, liberal democratic countries (the United Kingdom, the United States, and New Zealand being key exemplars) may not be generalizable, necessarily, to other nations. And building on that point: even within those specific national experiences that gave rise to scholarly arguments about a new governance or new public management, some have offered another note of caution about generalizability. Even within a given national government not all policy domains or specific programmatic areas follow a uniform pattern of public goods provision. For example, the changing policy and management dynamics in social welfare services in County A may bear little resemblance to environmental regulation policy and management dynamics in that same country (see O’Toole & Meier, 2000, for an illustration of this type of critique).

This last point is important because, without question, specific policy domains and programmatic areas are unlikely to have uniform experiences within the same national government system. So what about the specific challenge of public policy and management of natural hazards? In a setting of the production and provision of public services related to natural hazards, emergency management, or broader disaster management issues, in the most general terms, a complex arrangement of shared or mutually reinforcing efforts (at least ideally) by governmental and nongovernmental actors is seen. Jerolleman and Kiefer (2016) provide an excellent exposition of how private sector firms provide significant contributions to direct service production and delivery across a range of areas relevant to hazards management. The details and complexities of the sharing of responsibilities is illustrated effectively in several different articles in the two volumes of Natural Hazards Governance, including Egli (2020) on public–private partnerships, Jerolleman (2020) on contracting of key services in the United States, Sanderson (2020) on the international nongovernmental organizations (NGO) community’s role in humanitarian assistance during disaster recovery, Lassa (2020) on the role of NGOs in disaster risk reduction efforts, and Sapat (2020) on transboundary considerations. Acknowledging this complexity and shared responsibilities and production inputs between governmental, private firms, and NGOs is accurate and necessary—and very helpful in understanding a key feature of natural hazards governance. But at the same time, formal governmental authority through statute and actions of governmental agency sets a defined framework within which these complex relationships play out in real practice. Wurtzel, Zito, and Jordan (2013) note that on environmental governance issues—and a point reiterated by Provost (2020) in considering the topic of multilevel governance systems—those private or NGO goods and services production efforts take place within a specific context of formal hierarchical authority—i.e., governmental authority.

To understand where natural hazards governance stands at present, it is necessary to recognize the evolution in how the management of natural hazards, emergencies, and disasters has changed over time.

Natural Hazards Governance: Reducing Risk and Promoting Resilience

Speaking in the broadest terms, comprehensive governmental approaches to emergency management (for smaller-scale incidents) and management of disasters for (larger-scale incidents) is a relatively new phenomenon. In the United States, which has served as something of an exemplar of basic practices for a number of other national emergency and hazards management systems, dealing with emergencies or disasters could be characterized as a somewhat traditional command and control model, rooted in a civil defense perspective, from the middle of the 20th century until its last decade or so (for historical background, see May & Williams, 1986; Platt, 1999; Roberts, 2013). The approach to dealing with large-scale disruption from natural hazards (and technological hazards as well) was rooted in a structured governmental response (with a quasi-military command and control structure defining public sector agency actions) with a doctrine that defined the challenge primarily as one of consequence management. While difficult to generalize across the globe, various articles in Natural Hazards Governance note a similar trajectory: movement from a somewhat narrow response and consequence management model, commonly with some form of civil defense doctrine undergirding operational protocols, during an earlier post-World War II era. Then, that approach gradually gave way to more integrative and meaningfully comprehensive and at least somewhat more adaptive systems in the 1990s and 2000s. In the two volumes of Natural Hazards Governance illustrations of this progression range across settings as diverse as Western Europe (Prior & Roth, 2020), India (Sharma & Kumar, 2020) and South Africa (Sutherland, 2020). Further, as Ray-Bennett, Mendez, Alam, and Morgner (2020) note, international efforts aimed as disaster risk reduction and overall management improvement (e.g., the Yokohama Strategy in 1994, the Hyogo Framework in 2005, and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction in 2015; see also de la Poterie & Baudoin, 2015, for a summary of those international frameworks) have helped promote and advance improved practices in coordination between organizations in governmental and nongovernmental sectors. In short, and simplifying greatly, the trend over the last two decades or so in numerous countries has been to move beyond narrower command and control response systems (oriented toward post-incident management) toward more proactive systems of mitigation, risk reduction, and cross-sector coordination and collaboration.

That broad historical trajectory is approximately parallel to the trends that prompted arguments about a “new governance”; that is, as emergency and disaster management approaches matured toward greater complexity over the production of services, trends toward privatization of state-owned enterprises and greater reliance on private sector or nonprofit sector organizations for the production of public goods and services provision through greater use of contracting or similar arrangements were occurring in various countries. As a result, it is tempting to emphasize the idea that a “collaborative” or “network” governance represents a new or transformational feature of natural hazards governance, as some scholars have done. And while it is certainly true that the maturation of the emergency management profession and disaster management practices have matured greatly since the 1990s, such a perspective should perhaps be carefully leavened with another basic feature of natural hazards governance. That is a recognition that, while public goods production processes are complex and shared with nongovernmental actors, the scope or reach of governmental authority in addressing natural hazards risks is significantly greater than in previous historical periods.

In other words, the “new governance” perspective is both accurate in recognizing the complexities of increasingly shared responsibilities by governmental and nongovernmental actors, but misjudges a basic reality that operates simultaneously: government is the primary and most important arbiter of efforts to manage risk, promote resilience and sustainability, and such responsibilities have inexorably increased in scope and scale. This is a fundamental feature that cannot be overlooked and must be a part of any discussion of governance of natural hazards.

In an exceptionally insightful treatment of the expansion of the role of government in nearly all aspects of society, Moss (2002) provides a detailed explanation of the extraordinary ways in which government manages both public and private risk—at least in countries with relatively more developed economies. This is true in virtually any area of policy interest, from social welfare issues, to financial regulation, to most forms of commercial activity, and of course, the mechanisms by which government (i.e., through public policy choices and administrative actions) manage risk associated with disasters. This perspective comports with a common recognition of an ever-expanding set of regulatory obligations—again, at least in more developed market economies with democratic governance systems—for government to manage risk and market deficiencies in support of general public welfare in areas such as workplace safety and labor protections, consumer protections, environmental protections (see Eisner, 2000; Eisner, Worsham, & Ringquist, 2000; McCraw, 1986, for useful historical background on the United States experience; see Hammit, Rogers, Sand, & Wiener, 2013; Wiener, 2001, for similar regulatory development in a European setting and other comparative policy development).

Thus, what can be said about the current state of natural hazards governance is that two things are true at once. First, the scope and reach of formal governmental authority to deal with the challenges of natural hazards, everything from response systems to inclusive community planning to financing disaster recovery, has continually and significantly increased and matured since the 1970s and 1980s for many countries across the globe. Second, at the same time, that expansion of responsibility is inextricably linked to greater complexity in the production or provision of public goods and services related to managing various issues associated with hazards and potential disruption from those hazards. As a result, we see increasing use of more complex mechanisms of service production and delivery between governmental and nongovernmental organizations.

Recognizing those two essential elements of natural hazard governance, the domain can be defined as follows. Natural hazard governance refers to explicitly collective choices over the production of an amalgam or complex of public goods aimed at addressing hazards risk reduction and promoting resilience within or across defined political jurisdictions. Those choices create frameworks permitting a set of authoritative actions (lawful and legitimate) to be stated and executed by governmental entities, by nongovernmental agents on their behalf (in some form), or for goods and services to be jointly co-produced by governmental and nongovernmental actors. Those collective choices in a given setting are influenced by the institutional structure of formal public policy decision-making, which itself reflects variations in the political efficacy of community members, competing interests and incentives over policy preferences, and level of extant knowledge and understanding of critical challenges associated with given hazards. Those formal collective choices are also reflective of a broader cultural context shaping norms of behavior and conception of the relationship between communities and hazards.

Several elements of this definition warrant additional comment. First, exactly how individuals or communities in the aggregate experience risk and vulnerability associated with natural hazards is incredibly complex and a subject in its own right (see, e.g., Thomas, Phillips, Lovekamp, & Fothergill, 2013, for an overview of issues in social vulnerability to disaster). Without question, relative vulnerability is affected by collective choices (public policies), but also it is the case that there are limits to the degree to which public policy and public programmatic action may affect any one individual’s or a group’s relative level of vulnerability. Similarly, private ownership of property and other private behavior may be minimally affected by certain public policy choices and thus be distinguished from collective efforts at managing hazards. This is simply to say that there is a realm of societal features that are relevant to hazards management considerations, but fall outside the span, or potential span, of control of collective decision-making or programmatic efforts. Second, the centrality of thinking about natural hazards governance in terms of choices over and production of key public goods warrants elaboration. That topic is taken up in the section “Assessment Challenges in Natural Hazards Governance.” But before considering risk reduction and resilience from a public goods perspective, it is necessary to be clear on the definition of two key terms—disaster risk reduction and community resilience—referred to in the context of the definition of natural hazards governance just provided.

There are numerous excellent treatments of the substantive issues in both areas of disaster risk reduction and disaster or community resilience. The UNISDR (2009, p. 10) provides a basic definition of what constitutes disaster risk reduction; it defines the term this way: “the concept and practice of reducing disaster risk through systematic efforts to analyze and manage the causal factors of disasters, including through reduced exposure to hazards, lessened vulnerability of people and property, wise management of land and the environment, and improved preparedness for adverse events.” Alexander (2013) provides an etymological overview of both concepts. As with the discussion above, a comprehensive review of the robust literatures in both areas is beyond our scope here, but several useful and illustrative treatments of disaster risk reduction include Birkmann and Teichman (2010), Thomalla et al. (2006), Twigg (2004), and Wisner, Gaillard, and Kelman (2012).

Similarly, there is, of course, an enormous literature on resilience related to hazards, disasters or other extreme events. Relying on the UNISDR (2009, p. 24) again for a basic definition of resilience, it is: “the ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate to and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions.” Again, a thorough literature review is outside the scope of this article, but several useful overviews of the subject area include Comfort, Boin, and Demchak (2010), and Kapucu, Hawkins, and Rivera (2013). Somewhat more focused treatments include consideration of specific planning and basic operations of community resilience (Masterson et al., 2014) and how to understand urban resilience, specifically, in the face of disasters (Sanderson, Kayden, & Leis, 2016).

How those two concepts, risk reduction and community resilience, fit into research and assessment of natural hazards governance is taken up in “Assessment Challenges in Natural Hazards Governance.”

Assessment Challenges in Natural Hazards Governance

The definition of natural hazards governance posits that governance relates to explicit collective choices that translate into formal policies (which are combinations of statutory, regulatory, administrative, and managerial actions, typically subject to some form of judicial review in most national systems) in the specific areas of risk reduction and resilience promotion. Further, risk reduction and resilience are characterized as public goods—or more precisely, a complex of public goods. This warrants a bit more explanation, certainly.

Many readers are likely familiar with the basic definition of a public good. It is a good or service that is non-excludable (i.e., not subject to exclusive use or consumption) and non-rivalrous (consumption by one does not diminish consumption by another; that is, there is joint consumption or use). Because of those two essential characteristics, governmental or quasi-governmental entities produce public goods; private markets fundamentally lack incentive to produce a non-exclusive and non-rivalrous goods or services. Any basic textbook treatment of public goods will typically note there are different types of private or public goods based on where a good or service falls along these two dimensions of excludability and rivalrousness. For instance, examples of a pure public good (entirely non-exclusive and non-rivalrous) include such items as national defense, peace and security, fire protection, mosquito abatement; examples of an impure public good (where either the non-exclusive and non-rivalrous condition is limited or constrained in some way) would be many common pool resources, such as water from a common groundwater basin or an ocean fishery area (see Ostrom & Ostrom, 1999).

Economists typically focus on a few critical analytic issues when examining public goods. One is to evaluate the incentive structure that gives rise to choices over whether to provide the public good in the first place (which is never a given of course and involves complicated resource allocation choices given their public nature). Another is to assess efficiency issues in the actual provision of a public good (see Hardin, 1982; Stevens, 1993, for standard illustrations of these points). Generally speaking, what is not a focus of attention is the inherent characteristic of the good itself (beyond whether it is a pure or impure version of a public good). However, the inherent substantive characteristics matter a great deal for actual operations in practice, as well as assessments of performance or efficacy.

Without delving fully into all possible nuance or complexity, public goods can be thought of as tangible or intangible assets. Some critical infrastructure, such as roadways, may be treated as pure public goods. But it is also easy to recognize that there can be private ownership of such infrastructure (e.g., private roads or bridges, or a variant based on exclusion such as a toll road). Some such tangible assets thus are somewhat amenable to shared financing, operating or maintenance arrangements that typically constitute public private partnerships and are likewise subject to relatively straightforward performance assessments, or at least somewhat straightforward performance metrics (see e.g., Hart, 2003; Hodge & Greve, 2007).

But pure public goods, such as national defense, fire protection, or public safety, can be understood as intangible assets and have several key characteristics that differentiate them from tangible asset. National defense, as an example, is not only an intangible asset, but it is also an amalgam of a series of distinct—though interrelated—operational systems with discretely-defined functional or mission areas. This is significant for understanding the nature of national defense provision choices, identification of which narrower-scale governance structures (i.e., specific program or mission area-level) are appropriate or effective, determinants of performance efficiency and efficacy, and the basic nature of net outcomes.

In Natural Hazards Governance Jacob (2020) provides a detailed elaboration of issues in choices and supply or provision considerations of public goods related to natural hazards. As Jacob puts it: it is essential to identify what public good is being produced as well as its essential characteristics in order to assess it accurately. In the case of risk reduction and resilience promotion, both can be thought of as amalgamated public goods that are a function a broad set of discrete public goods production systems (administratively distinct with specific and defined authority structures) that are critically linked and interrelated. The effect of this sort of amalgamated good, or to put it another way, a pure public good as a system of systems of more narrowly focused public good systems, is that the amalgam of goods produces higher or lower levels of effective risk reduction or greater or lesser levels of actual community resilience at any given point in time. Both the level of risk and level of resilience in a community (or some defined jurisdiction or spatial area) are dynamic conditional states, of course, and thus vary over time.

What does this mean in practical terms? Let’s refer back to national defense again. It is a pure public good but as noted, it is a system of systems with a given level of defense readiness and capability at a given moment being the net outcome of that series of interrelated production efforts (from different branches and fighting forces, weapons systems, intelligences systems, etc.). In the same way a series of defined programmatic areas of responsibilities, defined through unique administrative structures and policy guidance, in a community, in their aggregate, comprises a collective effort at risk reduction or resilience promotion. A nice illustration of what that means in practice: consider the list of ten work areas of nonstructural hazard mitigation and adaptation strategies and policies for a community seeking to reduce risk and promote resilience that is provided in Masterson et al. (2014, pp. 140–141): development regulation and land-use planning, building standards, natural resource protection, public information and awareness, incentive tools, property acquisition programs, financial tools, critical public and private facilities polices, and public–private sector initiatives. This is primarily a planning perspective, certainly. And there are other items that could constitute key items in planning for risk reduction or mitigation or general means of resilience promotion in other specific areas. For instance, discussions of the mechanisms of recovery (see, e.g., Alexander, 2004), disaster resistance (see, e.g., Burby et al., 1999; Burby, Deyle, Godschalk, & Olshansky, 2000), urban resilience (Godschalk, 2003), the use of comprehensive plans for risk reduction (Srivastava & Laurian, 2006) or simply the overall way in a structured system of public authority guides these kinds of processes (Schwab, 2020). The overarching point is that each of these areas has both well-defined legal authorities to guide actions and defined administrative systems that guide actual operations. That is, these different areas of public goods production are discrete systems in their own right on one level (i.e., a building code enforcement program is different from a property acquisition program for a land-use purpose and an environmental protection regulatory program in a specific medium such as air or water is different as well). But they all are critically linked to either risk reduction efforts or resilience promotion efforts.

This is a simple observation, but presents at least three (and others, certainly) analytic challenges. One is to consider assessment of these two intangible asset, amalgamated public goods—risk reduction and resilience promotion—as a systems-of-systems problem. Hagen, Passeri, Bilski, DeLorme, and Yoskowitz (2020) provides an excellent illustration of just such an approach; they show how the features of a bio-geo-physical coastal environment interact with social, economic, and ecological impacts in producing a management response to sea-level rise and climate change. Similarly, Newell, Dale, and Roseland (2018) present an excellent illustration of how the specific tool of community planning can be assessed from the perspective of integration as a key measure of whether a community’s climate action efforts yields a greater likelihood of community sustainability. A second challenge is to consider the very specific policy tools and other governance mechanisms involved in natural hazards governance. Schneider and Glavovic (2020) also provide a case study in New Zealand of the challenges in choosing and implementing adaptation practices related to increasing risk due to sea-level rise. Such a vivid illustration of those challenges highlights what governance means at a local level or scale. And a third challenge is to consider the co-production of public goods, which is a central feature of natural hazards governance. Pestoff and Brandsen (2013) provide a useful review of the ways in which nongovernmental actors are critical in the provision of many key public services. Analyzing the specific dynamics of the co-production dimension of natural hazards governance is another essential analytic challenge.

These are just three starting points for analysis when risk reduction and resilience promotion are treated as a public goods production process from an overall governance perspective.


This article aims simply to define and provide clarity to term natural hazards governance. In doing so, the definition highlights that the governance of natural hazards is anchored fundamentally by a recognition that two interrelated but distinct public goods, hazards risk reduction and promotion of community resilience, represent its substantive focal point. These are not simply pure public goods, they are properly understood as an intangible good (as opposed to a hard or tangible asset, such as an item of public infrastructure) that produces its net effect as an aggregate of interrelated systems. And if this seems like an unusual way to characterize the situation, that is only because the research literature has not tended to use such terminology. But national defense is a perfect analogue—an amalgam of efforts or, put another way, a system of systems—that produced a net result. And just as there are variable levels of defense capabilities or readiness over time, the same holds true for efforts at hazards risk reduction and community resilience. Those are condition states in any given location that are a function of a system of systems of public goods production efforts—i.e., the result of governance choices over how to address natural hazards.

Using the term “natural hazards governance” is likely to be met with some skepticism for a very obvious reason. There are well-established, robust, high-quality research streams already focused on risk governance, and related research literatures on other key themes such as disaster response networks (research sometimes falling under a broad rubric of network governance) or disaster governance. In spite of the abundant quality of research in those areas, the elements of risk management (combined under a risk governance rubric) or the elements of disaster response, do not necessarily fully capture or integrate the full range of governance issues related to managing hazards risk and resilience. Identifying the public goods underpinnings of natural hazards governance is a means of offering an integrating conceptual mechanism.

In an article filled with a number of key insights about the state of hazards and risk, Gall, Nguyen, and Cutter (2015) note that risk reduction efforts have not been as robust as one may hope (at least in the specific care of the United States). And more specifically, they note that research on risk and hazards has not been successful, for the most part, in integrating distinct disciplinary approaches. Thinking about natural hazards governance as a process by which certain causal factors drive key collective choices and the integration of a series of public goods processes produce conditional states (i.e., resilience levels, risk reduction levels) subject to assessment is one way to improve our recognition of the continuing challenges associated with natural hazards.


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