Uncertain safety

By Inge Sebregts.

An interview about public risk policy and the report Uncertain Safety of the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) with Commissioner of the Queen of the Province of North Brabant Wim van de Donk.In 2008 the report Uncertain Safety was published by the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR). Chairman of the Board at that time was Professor. Ph.D. Wim van de Donk, now Commissioner of the Queen of the Province of North Brabant in the Netherlands. In this interview Risk Management and Risk Policy from the perspective of Mr. Van de Donk.

The WRR report Uncertain Safety compares the field of physical security management with the chaotic appearance of a modern teenage room. Van de Donk: “In the last few years, both the government as various advisory bodies highlight some generic problems facing the physical security. The focus lies on the management problems which are caused by the traditional risk approach, the approach itself is not questioned. The enormous amount of regulations causes management problems. Also, the burden of these problems – both for the government as for the entrepreneurship – are a point of concern. Consistency is sometimes hard to find. The whole area of problems is characterized by lack of clarity”.

Probability x consequence = damage
PRIMO Europe asked the Commissioner of the Queen Wim van de Donk how important risk management is. According to Mr Van de Donk it depends on the type of risks we speak off. “In the report Uncertain Safety we have asked ourselves what the basis of the Risk Management and Risk Policy of the government is and whether this matches the risks we face?”

“A risk is ‘probability times consequence is damage”.

You choose to either manage the effects of the risk or to manage the chance for the risk to occur.  In the report we say that this static method of risk approach still has every reason to be maintained. There is a certain type of management necessary with this approach: managing impacts and reducing opportunities “.

“We live in an uncertain safety, it is necessary to determine whether the approach of the risk is still adequate with all the risks we face. Society faces new problems, which are in many aspects different from the risks we faced 50 years ago. It is important to adapt the risk policy on these new problems rather than to persistently insist on the classical approach of Risk Management “.

Manufactured risks
In his work as Commissioner of the Queen, Mr Van de Donk is dealing with risk management on various fields. Specifically in the province of North-Brabant is the problem Q-fever high on the political agenda. “In managing this risk, you are easily tempted to operate only on expert opinions and forget to look at the pre-assumptions. The whole basis of risk policy should be in my opinion much more focused on the “manufactured risks”. Not the risks caused by external factors, but rather the risks that we cause by our own behaviour. ”
Manufactured risks are a new category of risks, from which we actually know relatively little. “The risk of Q-fever in the Province of North-Brabant is in a sense an example of such a risk. We all knew the risk, but the magnitude of the risk has increased. It is necessary to ask yourself whether this just means that the risk is more dangerous, or that the risk has to be seen as a totally different type of risk”.

“Policy is in its essence anticipating potential risks and cushioning the effects of the risks that occurred”.

Uncertainty as a challenge
The report Uncertain Safety talks about uncertainty as a challenge: “In the era in which the industrial world assumed that infectious diseases were manageable, arose serious new problems with the arrival of AIDS and SARS. The BSE crisis arose doubts about the naturalness with which the safety of food appeared to be guaranteed. The climate issue raises new questions in areas which have long seemed manageable, such as flooding. With new technologies such as biotechnology and nanotechnology, politic managers are also repeatedly confronted with the fact that it is not obvious that they know the risks that need their attention. Sometimes this causes fierce public debates to arise. In the current scientific literature on risk governance, these experiences have led to new theories. In these theories it is recognized that in addition to simple and complex risk issues, to which the classic risk approach is used, also uncertain and ambiguous risks arise. These new types of risk are characterized by uncertainties about the opportunities and / or the extent of potential damage, or by the different ratings given to these. They ask, as is increasingly recognized, for a new risk management approach”.

Complex risks
According to Mr Van de Donk the risks in society have increased in complexity. “Managing risks has become more complicated, because the complexity of the risks is growing. Risks are more and more consistent with each other “. “We need to focus on high urgency, high probability and high impact risks”.

The WRR report Uncertain Safety describes a “new risk approach”: “This new risk approach has been given its shape over the past few years. In addition, it has become increasingly clear that the concept ‘risk’ is a considerably more complex concept than it was long believed to be. The new risk approach is therefore not dealing with known risks, but uncertainties are the main focus. These uncertainties need to be translated, as well as possible, to risks that can be discussed.

This translation will not always be complete. When it comes to making the decision, there will always remain uncertainty. The new risk approach requires specific organisational requirements. It requires for example prudence that is reflected in the willingness to consider multiple disciplinary problems from different perspectives.

Where the classic risk approach had a clear definition of roles and well defined coordinating procedures, this risk approach brings more threats in uncertain and ambiguous risk problems. Dealing with uncertainty requires flexibility, variety and room for early warners.

According to Professor Van de Donk, we tend to not always deal with risk policy rationally. “Something that gets a lot of attention in the media, or has a sexy sound to it, gets a great fuss. It is important to keep paying attention to the more ‘simple risks’, such as the chance to fall down the stairs and die or that senior citizens slip while taking a shower and are unable to get up”.

The WRR report Uncertain Safety offers a interesting insight into the risk policy of the government and the opportunities that is still offers. You can download the report (in Dutch) from the site of the WRR.

Read more in Public Risk: About Values in our Society