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United Kingdom Interdepartmental Liaison Group on Risk Assessment (UK-ILGRA)

Risk Assessment and Risk Management:
Improving policy and practice within government departments.

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Chapter 1

Developments and influences since first report


  1. In 1996 ILGRA published a report to Ministers on the use of risk assessment in Government Departments.
  2. It was an influential report which provided for the first time a comprehensive summary of how Departments used risk assessment as a tool in regulating risk and made various recommendations for improvement. The report revealed that, though an assessment of risks underpins many of the decisions reached by Government in its varied functions (eg as investor of public money, as regulator, enforcer and educator), the use of risk assessment had not developed systematically but had evolved over time, leading to differences of approach between Departments. Although Departments had much in common, there were a number of areas where greater coherence and consistency would have definite and tangible advantages.
  3. As a result of the report, it was agreed that ILGRA would continue its work to develop consistent approaches between Departments and report collectively two years hence to Ministers via its chairman. This second report fulfils this remit.
  4. This report is in three parts. This chapter looks at developments that have occurred since the first report was produced and makes the case that the need for Government to have coherent and consistent policies for regulating risk remains a high priority. Chapter 2 describes the initiatives undertaken to promote greater consistency in the areas identified in the first report and the progress achieved so far. In the interim, new issues have emerged and there has been a marked raising of the profile of risk as a subject of public debate. Greater importance has been attached by Government to mechanisms for addressing public concerns and to ensuring more 'joined-up working' between Departments. Chapter 3 of the report sets out the issues and problems that have come to the forefront as Departments have sought to respond to the changed climate. The report describes the actions already underway on some of these issues, indicates further measures that could be taken and sets out an agenda for future work.

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Developments and influences

  1. In the first report we suggested that Departments may have reached a cross-roads in health, safety and environmental risk policy-making. For example, there are increasing demands from the public for explanations on how Departments reach decisions on risk and calls for more openness and transparency in that process. One consequence of this is that it is becoming increasingly untenable for Departments to adopt a narrow outlook on the risks they manage. Many developments that have occurred since then confirm that this is indeed the case. The following are worth noting:
    • Globalisation of economic activity is changing people's attitude to risk. It is bringing home that, in increasingly wide areas of the economy, we are effectively in competition with the rest of the world and that being uncompetitive means job losses. The resulting insecurity is serving to reinforce the message that there is a link between the climate in which economic activity is conducted and the resultant standards of living and quality of life. Above all, there is a realisation that what is required is an effective policy on sustainable development which embraces desirable social progress and a measured response to risk.
    • People are becoming more circumspect regarding developments in science and technology. Following disasters such as Chernobyl and Bhopal, and facing the threat of the potential effects of global warming and depletion of the ozone layer, people are cautious about letting industry take advantage of technological advances. They are quite prepared to embrace new technologies, as exemplified by the phenomenal growth in the use of mobile phones, the Internet and information technology in general, but they want to be reassured that the risks to themselves and things they value are properly controlled. Applications which bring clear benefits are also likely to gain acceptance as is evident by the public's readiness to welcome the exploitation of biotechnology for transparently beneficial medicinal and curative purposes while voicing concerns about other applications such as the genetic modification of plants to improve the appearance of fruits and vegetables.
    • The importance of information technology in shaping the perceptions of the public to risks has increased. The explosion in the use of the Internet and the global networks of satellite television means that industrial disasters or scares about a particular risk occurring anywhere in the world can send shock waves affecting other countries. This is particularly true for events where the media can produce graphic images of the consequences. Frequently one outcome is a clamour for immediate action by Government. Moreover, the Internet, by providing a cheap and efficient means of written communication, has made it easier for interested groups to make their position known to the public in their attempts to gain sympathy and support for their campaigns.
    • Though disasters and reactions to the threats posed by certain risks are accompanied by calls for Government action, there is an ambivalence as to what Government and regulators can or should do, with countervailing pressures against over-reaction to transient shifts in public opinion. The risk of contracting Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease - the human form of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) - from eating beef, and recent rail crashes both at home and abroad have vividly brought home to the public that there is no such thing as zero risk. These events have resulted in healthy debates on the need for a balance between Government intervention and the freedom of choice of individuals or of companies to operate in a free market. The general feeling is that introducing regulations to address reactions to risks inflamed by momentary passions should be avoided. For example, there is a strong school of thought that the right balance was not achieved when the Dangerous Dogs Act was introduced.
    • The growing recognition that the concept of risk needs to be enlarged to take account not only of the possibility of physical harm arising from exposure to hazards, but also of the societal concerns they engender. This has already prompted many multinationals to change their business operations and management style to take account of society's changing expectations. This change has been catalysed by the growing tendency of interest groups to put financial pressures on firms they see as having a poor record on health, safety and the environment or human rights, as witnessed by the outcome of the proposals from Shell to dispose of the Brent Spar oil storage facility in the North Atlantic or the recent considerations by the tobacco industry to provide compensation for smokers.
  2. One aspect of these developments is the recognition (now confirmed by recent research) that:
    • the notion of risk is strongly shaped by human minds and cultures. For example, Shell now readily accepts that their risk-based decision on the disposal of the Brent Spar was flawed, in the light of opposition by the public based on a different notion of how the risks should be framed;
    • the public is far from being a homogenous group. In a sense society is becoming more fragmented for a variety of reasons such as changes in patterns of employment. Though people now live longer, the trend is to retire earlier. The number of self employed people has increased and employees no longer anticipate working with the same firm for all their working lives. In addition, advances in technology, such as genetic screening, mean that in future it will be possible to classify people according to their susceptibility to specific risks. Developments such as these undermine the basic assumption in current risk assessment techniques that we cannot identify in advance who is likely to be harmed by exposure to particular risks. As a result there is an increasing tendency for the purpose of assessing risks to consider the public as disparate groups with different lifestyles and different susceptibilities.

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  1. These developments have enormous implications for the way Government and its Agencies regulate risks. In particular:

    Demands for trusted regulators

  2. Hardly anybody could have failed to notice the dramatic increase in recent years in demands placed on regulators appointed to address the risks to which we are all exposed. The responses to public inquiries and the pressures to create a Food Standards Agency are cases in point. The reasons for the demand have been attributed to the fact that:
    • People can no longer assess for themselves many of the risks they encounter in their daily life. This is due in part to advances in science and technology bringing with them new and less visible hazards and greater complexity in the analysis of the risks they generate. For example, whether genetically modified agricultural products pose a threat to humankind is not something that is readily apparent. People have to rely instead on the advice of experts. However, the trust placed in expert advice as a source of reassurance is being continually eroded particularly for those issues where the mass media and interest groups seek to expose controversies surrounding such advice.
    • Society is evolving in such a way that it is getting more difficult to seek redress or obtain compensation when something goes wrong because it may no longer be readily apparent who is responsible for creating or managing risks. For example, changes in patterns of employment (such as outsourcing work) and the global nature of certain risks, such as depletion of the ozone layer, global warming and acid rain, contribute to this diffusion of responsibility.
    • Modern society is evolving in such a way that it is virtually impossible for many to avoid risks they would prefer not to incur. For example, a person who does not want to travel by motor car or by plane may find their employment or promotion opportunities severely restricted. A person wanting to avoid exposure to chemicals, even in trace amounts in food, because of their fear of additives or residues would only be able to do so at great expense or by having a restricted way of life.
  3. In short, since an appointed regulator makes it easier for people in their endeavours to get things put right or obtain compensation or redress, they make greater demands on them.
  4. However, just having regulators will not be enough. The regulators will have to be trusted by the public. Since such trust is far from bestowed automatically, the regulators will have to earn it by showing that they are fair and competent in their dealings. For example, workers exposed to hazardous substances at work expect that HSC/E have put in place an appropriate legal framework to ensure that the risks to which they are exposed are tolerable and kept as low as is reasonably practicable. Again, people living in the vicinity of a chemical plant would like to be similarly reassured.

    Demands for greater openness and the involvement of stakeholders in decisions on risk issues

  5. This is linked to some extent to how the Government and regulators can build trust with the public. Nevertheless, the present commitment towards more open government has brought with it a growing recognition of the need for greater involvement of stakeholders in Governmental decision-making on risk issues. As a consequence, regulators are critically examining how they communicate with stakeholders so that they can develop innovative and effective approaches to accessing their views and incorporating them into the generation and choice of policy options.

    Calls for more 'joined-up working' by Departments at home and abroad

  6. By and large Departments and Government Agencies have regulated and managed the risks in their remits according to the culture within their Departments and long-standing regulatory traditions. This is not surprising since Departments and regulatory Agencies have different missions, administer different statutes and are responsive to different stakeholders and interested groups. However, though Departments have well established procedures for co-ordinating their policies, greater openness and demands for consistency in the way in which Departments regulate risks are exposing weaknesses in the system, for example:
    • Departments and Agencies have mandates that overlap in some areas and leave gaps in others, giving rise to the possibility that Departments may address risk issues in a piecemeal fashion or adopt policies which do not dovetail well together;
    • there is often no 'one-stop-shop' to which stakeholders can go to resolve problems involving more than one Department. They must do so by contacting each Department separately and hope that existing co-ordination procedures will be robust enough for coping with their problem;
    • the occasional high-profile mistake is often due to a series of inefficiencies and inconsistencies between Departments and Agencies, though any one of these by itself might be considered minor.
  7. Globalisation and the opening up of international markets and the growth of the European Union is also putting more pressure on Departments to have better co-ordinated policies on the use and application of risk assessment in the regulatory context. This has been particularly noticeable in EC Directives on the marketing and use of goods, the Seveso II Directive which spans both occupational and environmental concerns, and the evolution of international standards and practices. Certain technologies are developing so fast, eg the safe use of computerised systems for controlling plant and machinery, that many countries are calling for technologies to be regulated at international level as the only effective way to prescribe appropriate standards.
  8. The move towards the internationalisation of regulation requires innovative forms of regulatory co-operation between Departments because they broaden the scope of factors which Departments and Agencies must take into account for ensuring that their policies are consistent, eg agreements for regulatory harmonisation, mutual recognition of standards and removal of barriers to trade.

    Clarifying the Role and Contribution of Risk Assessment and Risk Management in the Decision-making Process

  9. There is no doubt that tremendous progress has been made during the second half of this century in improving the quality of the environment in which we live, the safety of our workplaces and that of our food, medicines and consumer products in general. This has been achieved either explicitly or implicitly through the application of risk assessment and risk management techniques. Indeed these techniques are widely used not only by central and local Government but also by industry to address complex problems involving uncertain outcomes.
  10. Yet, despite these achievements, doubts exist in some quarters about the robustness of risk assessment techniques in situations where there is considerable uncertainty about the representation of the hazard and the estimation of the risks that they entail. But risk assessment is quintessentially a means of addressing issues whose outcomes can only be presented in probabilistic terms. Many such issues are amenable to robust analysis where there is a firm foundation of experience and relevant good practice. Decision-making in such circumstances is greatly assisted by the information provided by a risk assessment. Where there is little sound information, the outcome of the risk assessment has to be treated with due caution but nonetheless the process of conducting a risk assessment can be a powerful technique for identifying the significant influences on a decision. As such, the risk assessment is an essential aid to decision-making. It should not dictate the solution and care has to be exercised to ensure that it is not misused, or perceived to be misused, in that way.
  11. There is therefore an urgent need to address these misconceptions. A good start would be for Departments to provide explanations on the principles, procedures and criteria underpinning their approach to reaching decisions on the management of risks. They will need to show how their decision-making process has evolved to take account, for example, of a broader definition of risk and the need to involve stakeholders in that process. What such Departmental frameworks should cover is explored in greater detail in Chapter 3.

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Role of ILGRA

  1. ILGRA, working together with the Cabinet Office Better Regulation Unit (BRU), has continued to provide a much needed forum for Departments to engage in debate and critically assess their approaches to these issues. It has in particular promoted new collaborative approaches, fostered research on topics of cross Governmental relevance and provided a network for improving communications between those engaged in policy development on risk in different Departments. It has been the driving force behind a number of projects specifically aimed at addressing emerging issues as well as those identified in the first report to Ministers.
  2. Chapter 2 and Annex1 give many examples of successful joint and Department-led initiatives to develop solutions to shared problems, while in Chapter 3 we examine problems areas on which ILGRA plans to concentrate in the next two years including how problems that have hampered progress might be addressed.
Updated 2009-05-21