Uncertain Safety

Uncertain Safety 350x275Interview with Wim van de Donk

By Inge Sebregts

An interview about public risk policy and the report Uncertain Safety: Allocating Responsibilities for 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.

The report 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 failures.

“The State, that’s the dikes”*

We live though 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 Wim 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, i.e. the risks caused by external factors and the risks that we cause by our own behaviour.“

“You choose to either manage the effects of the risk or
manage the chance for the risk to occur.”

Manufactured risks are a new category of risks: “The risk of Q-fever in the Province of North-Brabant in a way is an example of such a risk. We all did know the risk, but the magnitude of the risk has increased by the way we approached the whole issue.

It is necessary to be aware of our way of governance. More than that we should pay more attention and be self critical in our approaches of such issues. In my view the whole process of policy making is in its essence anticipating potential risks and cushioning the effects of the risks that occur now and possibly will occur in the near future, including our own decisions.”

Uncertainty as a challenge
The report focuses on 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 though, politicians and managers are repeatedly confronted with the fact that it is not obvious that they know the risks that need their attention. In that case you walk into an open mine field, with all consequences. Understandbly this causes fierce public debates and result in a maximum of media attention.

In the current scientific literature on risk governance, these experiences have led to new theories. Herein 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.

Paragraph 4.1 of the report the intrinsic problems of the classical risk approach are described as follows: “In many areas risk assessment and risk management are standing practices. As such they substantially contribute to high-quality risk prevention and risk reduction.

Still, several assumptions of this approach call for reflection, on account of the new conditions under which policies are developed, as well as for a number of theoretical reasons.

We will discuss four assumptions, notably:

  • that assessment and management should always be performed separately;
  • that knowledge is value-free;
  • that experts have the proper knowledge and
  • that knowledge of risks implies manageability.

As we will demonstrate, each of these assumptions requires attention, not only from science but also from politics.”

These new types of risks are characterized as uncertainties about the opportunities and/or the extent of potential damage, and need in my view me rated differently as we now do with for instance the Monte Carlo Simulation.

Such a rating system that can be used by politicians – and has much more parameters and factors to be considered, is in its early stage of development. In fact the complexity and the quantity of emerging risk demands a new risk management approach. It should combine the languages of experts, managers and politicians“.

“Dealing with uncertainty requires room for early warners”

Complex risks
According to Wim van de Donk the risks in society indeed have increased in complexity. “Managing risks has become more complicated, because the complexity

of the risks is growing. Risks are more and more inconsistent with each other. We have to choose always and focus on high urgency, high probability and high impact risks on one hand and never underestimate to small present ones. We have to be alert on this. They can develop from very small to very big in short terms.”

The WRR report describes this 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 risk is a considerably more complex concept than it was long believed to be.

The new approach is therefore not dealing with known risks, but uncertainties are the main focus. These in fact need to be translated 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 Commissioner and Professor Wim 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 – almost not visible, but strongly existing and essential – risks.

The report in my view offers an interesting insight into the risk policy of public government and the challenges of it before us.”


Photo: © Louise G.S. Kruf