Guidance on Societal Impact Assessment for Project Evaluators

Authors: Reinhard Kreissl(f)*, Barbara Prainsack(d), David Barnard-Wills(a), Matthias Müth(b), Lars Ostermeier(c), Kush Wadhwa(a), William Webster(e).

fInstitut für Rechts- und Kriminalsoziologie, Vienna. aTrilateral Research & Consulting, London. bHamburg-Consult Gesellschaft für Verkehrsberatung, Hamburg. cTechnical University Berlin. dKing’s College London. eUniversity of Stirling.

Security and security research contribute to shaping the environments and societies for citizens in Europe. Consequently, evaluators of EU security projects live up to their considerable responsibility to capitalise on the opportunities and to avoid pitfalls by fully understanding and assessing the impacts of respective activities.

Societal Impact Assessment goes beyond the established approaches of ethical and legal assessment in the evaluation of research proposals. Societal impacts include any changes, positive or negative, to which a planned project could lead in the real world. These changes can include impacts on the environment, data security, social relations, minority interests, organisational procedures, etc.

SIA will not add another layer of bureaucracy to the assessment of planned projects. Instead, SIA will support proposers and evaluators to think reflectively about possible consequences of a project beyond the specific focus of the project outcomes envisaged in the proposal. In the optimal case, SIA is a genuine learning exercise for all actors. The consideration of societal impact has been mandatory for proposed security solutions since FP7.[i]

There is no SIA “recipe” that universally fits all projects. While some projects may require an extensive SIA with a dedicated project work package and a significant budget, other projects may satisfactorily demonstrate that they have considered possible societal impacts at the planning stage, and that they have the capacity to identify and address possible issues when they emerge. This does not mean that the expertise to address issues and manage risks needs to be ‘in house’, but project applicants should typically be able to demonstrate that they know where and how to get help when needed. To what extent, in what form, and at what stage societal impacts are being considered in a given proposal or project need to be decided on a case-by-case basis.

A comprehensive document on how to carry out an SIA is available here.  Here we briefly list a number of principles establishing good practices in SIA. For project evaluators, these principles can help assessing to what extent project proposers have considered possible (un)intended consequences of their planned project on society. They are not to be used as a check-list with scores assigned to every category. Individual projects are different with regard to the aspects and principles that apply to them.

Good Practice Principles for Societal Impact Assessments

  1. Clarify how security is understood in a given project (especially when this is implicit)

  • How does the project enhance the security of European citizens and societies?
  • What types of security (environmental, health, national, energy security, etc.) are implicit or explicit in the project?
  • Whose security is enhanced – and whose security is not?
  • What are alternative measures that could lead to the same enhancement of security?


  1.  Clarify what kind of societal impacts could be relevant in the context of a particular project

  • Impacts can include a wide range of benefits, harms, unintended (structural) consequences, etc. on individuals, minorities, households, enterprises and communities.
  • Advantages and disadvantages can be distributed unevenly, i.e. distinguish who benefits from the projects, and who endures the drawbacks
  • Ensure that complex societal challenges are not reduced to issues that can be fixed with technological solutions only.


  1.  Findings from SIA should have the potential to adapt the project and R&D process

  • SIA should not be an “add-on” at the end of the project, but it should be integrated into the project at its earliest stages, and have the possibility to modify the project in case significant undesirable impacts are anticipated.
  • Project proposals should show how they plan to react to these impacts, which usually requires some flexibility in project implementation and the capacity to amend project plans.


  1. Participation of relevant people and groups means more than merely to inform or consult them. Also, engagement with wider groups than only end users may be necessary

  • Stakeholders, users, or members of the public can be important sources of knowledge on likely societal impacts. Depending on the nature of the project, they can be integrated into different stages of the project. Merely asking them once for the sake of “ticking the box” of user engagement is typically not satisfactory. The range of people or communities affected by a project may be much wider than end users. Engaging stakeholders as far as possible into the decision-making process is desirable and a way of reducing risks.
  • The extent to which stakeholders should be informed, consulted or engaged depends on the likelihood and severity of the societal impacts as well as their particular vulnerability. A project with major impacts will need a more rigorous engagement strategy than one that has minimal or no such impacts. Similarly, the range of stakeholders also depends on the likelihood and severity of impacts. Weak and vulnerable (minority) groups often require a more pro-active approach and engagement.


  1. Keep the administrative burden reasonable

  • What is reasonable depends on the project. It is not the case that the more resources invested in SIA automatically increases the quality of SIA. Reflexivity is key, not money.


  1. Think about transparency and the limitations of the SIA process

  • SIA can never anticipate all possible impacts. The limitations of SIA should be dealt with in an open and transparent manner.
  • Transparency can also be very useful in various stages of the SIA process itself (e.g. publication of findings of SIA or of impact management plans, etc.). Limitations and shortcomings of the applied SIA should be made explicit.


  1. Clarify what purpose the knowledge produced in a SIA should serve

  • It is important to consider what purpose the SIA should serve. Should it make the project more socially robust? Will it be used to communicate with policy-makers? Is it needed for an evaluation report?
  • Clarifying the purpose of an SIA from the start will help in producing knowledge that is most fit for purpose.




[i] Attention must be given to the societal impact of the proposed security solutions, which will be evaluated under the criterion “impact”. [29 Apr 2014], p. 8.