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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 3

Towards future progress

Building Trust

  1. In the first report we pointed out that the perception of the role that risk assessment should play in the decision-making process was changing rapidly. This has continued at an accelerated pace, in part no doubt due to the developments we described in the first chapter of this report. In this chapter we take stock of the findings of ILGRA so far, and look at what further work needs to be done by Departments to improve the consistency, quality, transparency and fairness of the Government's accountability to the assessment, management and communication of risk.
  2. As a result of the work of ILGRA and developments mentioned earlier, a number of facts have become increasingly clear to Departments:
    • Debates on risk issues typically involve risks where the likelihood that they will actually be realised (and thereby cause harm) are quite small, such as the chance of one in a million that a particular detriment will actually be experienced by any individual in any one year. The public at large has difficulty in grasping the significance of or understanding such risk levels. In fact people prefer risks to be classified in broad categories such as large, medium or negligible;
    • Hazards can give rise to concerns which can be put into two broad categories. The first category relates to individual concerns, or how individuals see a hazard affecting them personally, their family and in general things that they value. Individuals may be prepared to engage voluntarily in activities that often involve high risks, and here many studies have found that people are loathe to believe that an entity or activity that is of considerable importance to them is hazardous and will persistently underestimate the risks attached to such entities or activities. For example, a person living near an erupting volcano may reject evidence from the best experts in the field that the risks are such that he should abandon his home because accepting the evidence produces a troublesome choice between two negative outcomes;
    • Nevertheless, it is well established that people may be willing to live with a risk that they do not regard as negligible, if it secures them or society certain benefits. Benefits for which people generally tolerate risks typically include employment, lower cost of production, personal convenience or the maintenance of general social infrastructure such as the production of electricity or the maintenance of food or water supplies. However, they would want such risks to be kept low and clearly controlled. In short, though individuals may be prepared to engage voluntarily in activities that often involve high risks, they are, as a rule, far less tolerant of risks imposed on them and over which they have little control unless they consider the risks as negligible;

    The second category relates to societal concerns or the risks or threats from the hazard which impact on society as a whole. This type of concern is often associated with hazards that give rise to risks which, were they to be realised, could provoke a socio/political response, eg risk of events causing widespread or large scale detriment. Typical examples relate to nuclear power generation, railway travel, or the genetic modification of organisms;

    • People's perceptions of risk can also be influenced by a range of external factors such as the way issues are framed, the extent of media coverage and the biases it introduces, the portrayal of hazards in films (eg Jaws, The China Syndrome), television, books and plays and in general by the lack or availability of information (eg, people generally believe that there are more murders than suicides and that rapes are mostly committed by persons unknown to the victim, whereas the opposite is true);
    • Since undertaking any activity involves some risk, any action by Government and regulators to control one risk invariably increases some other risk. For example, banning a chemical or pesticide leads to the use of substitutes which carry their own risks and the use of electric cars transfers air pollution from the streets to the site where electricity is generated.
  3. As a result it is now widely acknowledged that managing risks solely on the basis of a probabilistic estimate of physical harm is unlikely to succeed. Public values and perceptions of risk must also be integrated in the decision-making process, though how far these can be taken into account in any particular case will depend on constraints (such as the need to meet European Community or International obligations) and in some instances their legitimacy for use in Government policy-making because they would go against principles of fairness and equity (for example, decisions to make slavery illegal, give women the right to vote and abolish hanging were taken at a time when these went against the tide of public opinion). Secondly, whatever the decision-making process adopted, there will be a need for balance between the extent to which risks are prevented or controlled and the resources allocated for achieving these objectives.
  4. We therefore propose that broadly the future work of ILGRA should concentrate on two strands. First the development of structures or frameworks for integrating risk estimates or judgements, public perceptions, the need for trade-offs and other factors in the decision- making process. Second the steps that Departments and regulators can take to gain acceptance of these frameworks and adopt decisions representing the best trade-offs in particular situations. Of particular importance here will be the need to build trust in Government and its regulators. This is because trust is not only an essential ingredient in obtaining acceptance of risk management decisions, but also because mistrust lies at the root of conflicts about, for example, the validity of the risk assessment that informs the decision or how decisions are reached. Moreover, though we know that trust is not automatically bestowed, we also know that the Government can earn that trust by ensuring, amongst other things, that Departments and their Agencies have consistent, fair and transparent approaches that reflect the values of society.

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Encouraging Departments to Describe their Frameworks for Decision-making

  1. We believe that Departments and regulators can go a long way in gaining the trust of their stakeholders by providing systematic explanations of both the processes and the criteria they use for reaching decisions on the risks for which they are responsible.
  2. Such explanations would embrace the five basic principles proposed by the Better Regulation Task Force of the BRU against which good regulation and enforcement should be measured, namely transparency, accountability, targeting of action, consistency and proportionality.
  3. In practice this would mean describing procedures for:
    • making sure that Government action is taken only when such an intervention is warranted;
    • ensuring that the potential or current problem is framed as stakeholders see it. This requires shedding the default assumption that identifying the root of the problem is a matter only for the Departments or Agencies involved;
    • obtaining the necessary data and knowledge for informing decisions, such as the results of an assessment of the risks, the options available for solving the problem and the constraints attached to them;
    • adopting decisions, including the criteria used for ensuring that the residual risks that remain, after preventative and protective measures have been introduced, are tolerable to those affected and to society at large;
    • implementing the decisions using the range of instruments available to regulators and enforcers for that purpose, eg education, information, assistance, guidance, persuasion, promotion, economic incentives, Approved Codes of Practice, regulation and enforcement;
    • evaluating the effectiveness of the action taken. This is necessary to make sure that the action taken results in what was intended, and to identify lessons to be learned to guide future risk management decisions;
    • actively engaging stakeholders in all stages of the above process so that they can influence the assumptions and value judgements that permeate the whole procedure, and hence concur more readily with decisions emanating from it.
  4. Some Departments and Agencies are already engaged in producing such frameworks tailored to their particular circumstances and drawing on each other's experience. Once they become more widespread, we believe that they will go a long way towards helping Departments and Agencies gain the trust of their stakeholders by making more transparent the objectives that they are pursuing, and demonstrate the fairness of the policies adopted to minimise risks. They should also show that seemingly incompatible decisions between Departments are nothing of the sort when the decisions are put into their proper context.

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Clarifying the Role of Experts in the decision-making process

  1. We also believe that the frameworks for assessing and addressing risk problems that we have suggested Departments should articulate will need to clarify the role that experts play in the decision-making process. Traditionally Departments and Agencies have operated under the assumption that, with the assistance of experts as necessary, they would define the problem, assess the risks, identify risk management options, and adopt decisions. Typically, the input of experts was secured either collectively by, for example, an advisory committee, or individually by direct advice to Ministers, and the decision adopted was justified on the basis of reliance on the best independent scientific advice.
  2. Such an approach is becoming increasingly untenable for many reasons. Firstly, as already mentioned, Departments and experts may not frame the problem in the same way as the stakeholders. Secondly, there is a tendency for experts throughout the decision-making process to substitute their own value judgements for those of the stakeholders. Thirdly, stakeholders may feel disenfranchised if they have little or no opportunity to express their value judgements about the issue and how it should be addressed. And finally, assurances offered on the basis of objective science often implode into uncertainty because of unreliable or incomplete data, modelling uncertainties, debatable underpinning assumptions, or conflicts of scientific judgement in interpreting the data.
  3. The time is therefore ripe to reassess the role of experts in the process of informing and adopting decisions with a view to:
    • opening up to public scrutiny and peer review the scientific advice elicited from experts, and being clear where scientific judgement or opinion has been applied to convert information and expertise into intelligence about risk problems;
    • exposing and explaining the assumptions made, and the uncertainties that pervade the assessment of risks and the effectiveness of possible risk management options;
    • adopting appropriate procedures to enable stakeholders and experts to contribute as appropriate throughout the process of framing the issue, assessing the risks, identifying risk management options, adopting decisions, implementing the decisions and evaluating the effectiveness of the action taken;
    • explaining how expert scientific advice, together with relevant sociological, economic ethical and political considerations, contributed to the decisions made.
  4. To facilitate this work HSE is currently setting up interdepartmental research to:
    • identify and categorise current practices within Government for eliciting expert advice; and
    • draw up principles of good practice for the engagement of experts, the elicitation of their advice, and for the incorporation of the advice in decision-making.
  5. The research is being advanced through the Cabinet Office Official Committee on Science and Technology, chaired by the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser.

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Developing a Consistent Policy on a Precautionary Approach

  1. The need for regulators to take a precautionary approach when regulating risks has long been recognised. However, the degree of precaution that should be adopted has recently come to the forefront with the incorporation of the Precautionary Principle to describe a particular approach for addressing risks subject to high uncertainty in the environmental field. The Precautionary Principle is incorporated in the European Economic Treaty and other international treaties and conventions concerned with 'global' environment issues such as climate change and ozone depletion. Though a precautionary approach is by no means confined to environmental issues, its adoption is far from universal. This has led pressure groups and others to argue that a precautionary approach should become the cornerstone of all health, safety and consumer legislation.
         
  2. However, there is considerable confusion as to the form that this precautionary approach should take. Though everyone agrees that adopting such an approach eases the burden of proof on Departments or regulators that an activity, process or situation poses a significant risk and should therefore be subject to some form of regulation, there are differences as to how far the burden of proof should be eased. At one extreme, many would like Departments and regulators to ensure that no duty holder should be allowed to create risks unless they can justify the benefits. At the other extreme, there are those who want regulators to permit risks unless it is clear that the risk is intolerable. The approach adopted by Departments is to base decisions on risk assessment taking a precautionary approach in the absence of full evidence and, in particular, where risks are serious.
         
  3. Conflict arises when different and incompatible approaches are proposed for addressing risk issues arising from the same causative agent. Since the adoption of a precautionary approach is being increasingly advocated for risks where responsibilities of Departments overlap - particularly in international negotiations - there is an increased probability that Departments or their Agencies will need to ensure that they do this in a consistent fashion. There is therefore an urgent need for Departments to make sure that their precautionary approaches dovetail together, that they reflect the principles advocated by BRU (see para 55) and that they are compatible with a society that wants to encourage competitiveness, innovation, removal of barriers to entry in business and free trade in general within the framework of sustainable development. ILGRA is currently examining this and the place that a precautionary approach should take in the frameworks that it is suggesting Departments should articulate on their approach to the regulation and management of risks.

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Risk Communication

  1. Improving the way Departments and Agencies communicate risk will remain a priority. ILGRA plans to pay particular attention to promoting the guidance mentioned at para 41 and more generally to learning from the good practice and the wealth of experience in Departments.
                
  2. To that effect, ILGRA has recently set up a further sub-group chaired by the Department of Health to:
    • monitor the implementation of the recommendations arising out of the Risk Communication Benchmark Study;
    • collate information on Departmental initiatives aimed at improving the communication of risk, including training activities;
    • identify specific examples of good practice against each of the benchmark principles for risk communication;
    • disseminate information on current departmental research activities on risk communication and advise on the need for further collaborative research.

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Developing and Improving Techniques for Ranking Risks

  1. Given that resources are not infinite and that we all face an enormous range of risks in the world in which we live and work, there is broad consensus that society must find ways of identifying and devoting more attention to the greatest dangers than to insignificant risks. Indeed it was such compelling logic which led ILGRA to commission the research on risk communication mentioned in Chapter 2 of this report and which more recently has made it fashionable to advocate a 'Richter Scale' of risks to help both decision making and the communication of risks.
                      
  2. However, it is already becoming clear from the results of the work of ILGRA so far, that ranking risks is not without pitfalls and cannot be done in an objective fashion where each risk is expressed as a single number and ranked according to its magnitude. This is because:
                 
    • risks must be estimated and, as has been pointed out before, will reflect the subjective assumptions made to deal with uncertainty;
    • account must be taken of how the risks are perceived for the rankings to be accepted by the public at large;
    • account must be taken of the context in which the risks are being compared. We are taught that we should not compare apple and pears. Yet in ranking risks we may be faced with comparing peas with planets. Society has not yet evolved to the point where it is able to deal with the ethical issues that arise when comparisons are made between different kinds of risk. For example, is the immediate painless death of a 16 year old in a farming accident worse than the lingering death of a 60 year old asbestos insulation worker by lung cancer who may have compounded his chances of contracting the disease by chain smoking; or again are 100 fatalities in a single event worse than 1 fatality in each of 100 separate event over the same interval of time. The difficulties of resolving such relatively simple comparisons all involving fatalities pale when faced with ranking totally different risks, eg is the risk of global warming over the next fifty years worse than the loss of a number of rare species of plants.
                 
  3. Nevertheless, despite these difficulties, ILGRA will continue to develop criteria for setting priorities and examine the role that the subjective ranking of risks can play in this and the communication of risks.

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Commissioning Further Collaborative Research

  1. In view of the success of current collaborative projects (see paras 48-49), ILGRA will continue to finance, commission, steer and monitor further research. Undertaking research on an inter-Departmental platform has several advantages. They are not only more cost-effective than commissioning projects independently, but they also avoid duplication of effort and promote 'joined-up thinking'.
                    
  2. A number of Departments have already agreed to finance certain collaborative projects. Particularly topical is the proposed programme of projects that ILGRA, in collaboration with the ESRC, has commissioned for examining why some risks catch the public imagination while others are largely ignored. This phenomenon, known as the social amplification of risk, can have serious knock-on effects, for example, loss of confidence in institutions and diversion of resources for regulation or protective action on risks which would have otherwise received less priority. It is envisaged that this work will provide more information on the role of the media and other institutions in shaping risk perceptions, an area which has been neglected in earlier research. The results will also have practical implications in helping Departments to shape risk communication policies and practices to take into account possible amplification and attenuation effects.
                     
  3. ILGRA will also explore whether further inter-Departmental research should be undertaken to fill gaps in knowledge as a result of the developments described in Chapter 1 of this report, including:
                    
    • how trust can be achieved and maintained;
    • the links between risk perception, individual attitudes towards risk and actual behaviour;
    • an examination of the different rationales and concepts of risks within and between different cultures and social groups and their implication for decision-making. For example, as noted in para 6, it is now becoming possible to classify people into groups according to their lifestyles and susceptibility to risk, and further research may show that it might make sense to address a risk problem through a number of measures targeted at specific groups.
    • developing techniques for building into risk assessments variations in sensitivity to chemical products between individuals and between groups;
    • developing new models and techniques for balancing risks and benefits;
    • developing models and policies that integrate the scientific and sociological dimensions of risk;
    • developing ways of increasing stakeholder participation and of reaching commonly accepted understandings of risk problems, and so resolving conflicts between affected parties;
    • developing better tools for handling and communicating uncertainties.

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Building up within Departments the Necessary Capacity to Improve Cross- Departmental Co-ordination

  1. ILGRA is one of several ongoing initiatives to foster better co-ordination within Departments. Though ILGRA has been successful in fostering a number of measures for improving the formulation, adoption and implementation of public policy, it is becoming very apparent that there are limits to what ILGRA can achieve. Further progress to achieve greater consistency and joined-up working may require Departments to make certain organisational changes or take steps to change their culture.
              
  2. For example, Departments will only be able to produce frameworks along the lines proposed at paras 54-57 above if all divisions within a Department agree to subscribe to a common framework and are prepared to take on board the necessary steps to achieve that objective. This may entail establishing new methods of working such as the setting up of cross cutting task forces or working groups for bringing together policy makers, risk communication specialists and experts in the regulatory process, and taking active steps to involve stakeholders in all stages of decision-making.
                     
  3. Such changes in Departmental ways of working cannot be introduced in isolation. Since final policy decisions do not lie with officials but with Ministers or other appointed bodies, explicit endorsement that such changes will be beneficial and should be introduced would be required since the political process itself would be directly affected by the changes. Though the changes described above would improve overall the regulation and management of risks, they also have a downside. Increasing the input from interested and affected parties and the involvement of non-experts in deliberations about risk assessment will inevitably prolong the decision-making process. This may hamper Ministers or regulators on those occasions when rapid action is needed to address a particular problem. Broadening the range of possible policy options to accommodate a wider definition of risk may increase the complexity of addressing a particular problem and restrict the freedom of decision-makers in selecting the policy option to pursue. Overall the benefits of the changes would need to be carefully weighed against the disadvantages.
          
  4. There is also a need to consider how further resources might be allocated to ILGRA without changing the informality of the present arrangements and the free exploration of ideas they allow. A more formal setting could stifle the level of debate. Yet members have pointed out that participating in ILGRA is a very minor (though valuable) part of their work and does not feature in Departmental work plans. But given the many desirable courses of action we have identified the limits on what members can do on their own will be a constraint on progress.
                  
  5. Improving co-ordination at Departmental level will require resources to be allocated for this purpose. Moreover, ILGRA currently has no budget of its own. Funds to undertake research, publish ILGRA documents or promote the findings of research have to be found from the budgets of participating members. There is a case for more robust and accountable arrangements to be put in place.

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Conclusion

  1. Several factors - some scientific and others social, political and international - are causing Departments to converge in their approaches to the way they regulate and communicate on risks. Departments are also coming under more pressure to adopt quality regulation and to involve stakeholders in their processes for taking decisions on risks.
               
  2. ILGRA, though an informal body is, in collaboration with more formal bodies like the BRU, playing a major role in ensuring that Departmental approaches on the assessment and management of risks are consistent and up-to-date with changes occurring in society. This report describes the work undertaken by ILGRA to improve current arrangements and practices in these areas. It acknowledges the limitations of scientific and economic analyses while re-affirming their importance in the decision making process together with the need for rigour, fairness and flexibility in coping with dynamic situations. It also provides a menu of ideas for future work including suggestions for improving the effectiveness of ILGRA. As such the findings and conclusions of the report fit very well with the quest by Government for improved regulatory policies that will help ensure both wealth creation and quality of life for this and for future generations.
Updated 2011-05-04