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A balanced appraisal? Impact Assessment of European Commission proposals

Susan Owens

elni Review 2007, Issue 1,  pp. 2-8.

Decision makers need to be informed about the likely consequences of projects, plans, policies and regulations. This principle has been embodied for many years in procedures like environmental impact assessment and risk assessment. More recently, theory and practice in the field of impact assessment have been influenced by three important trends (the need for a more strategic approach, ‘better regulation’ and more integrated forms of assessment), all of which are evident within (though not restricted to) the European Union. As these developments gain momentum, it is an opportune moment to reflect upon the purpose, practice and effectiveness of impact assessment. We have much to learn from the substantial achievements of well-established procedures such as EIA. But as new approaches, methodologies and guidelines proliferate we may be in danger of losing touch with the fundamentals. How, for example, should we conceptualise the role of impact assessment in policy- and decision-making? 
Questions like this one are relevant for assessment at all levels of governance, but they are explored here primarily with reference to integrated impact assessments of European Commission proposals (henceforth referred to as ‘IA’). 
The paper sets out the policy background to this system, and considers the guidelines developed by the Commission for the conduct of such assessments. The paper then turns to experience with IA to date, particularly in relation to the questions identified above. It also proposes a set of principles, which should form a basis for impact assessment if it is to fulfil its role as an element of good governance.

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