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What’s the use of risk?

This week the the IRM held its Annual Lecture at the Willis Building.  This is a longstanding sponsored breakfast event which used to be held at the old Willis building at Ten Trinity Square.  It’s usually a thought-provoking occasion though since Willis’s move to Lime Street health and safety considerations have somehow stopped them dishing up bacon and sausage sandwiches.  Such is progress and obviously it puts more pressure on the speaker.

This year it was Sir John Beddington, the Government Chief Scientist whose title was The use of risk in Government.  His talk is well summarised by David West and I shall not run through the content here.  What I will reflect on is the messages he had for organisational risk management.

Beddington’s talk was a canter through a number of more or less well-known issues which can be characterised as random events or uncertain future conditions (or, more accurately, future conditions which are different from now, since Beddington was in no doubt as to the reality of anthropogenic climate change).  The first general point is that Government does not make much use of risk profiles – ie looking at a range of probabilities and outcomes.  Instead there is a preference for working from reasonable worst cases, a surprisingly sloppy concept, which has caused a lot of difficulty over the years.

The second point is that a scientific approach can stop you being panicked into overreaction.  Even the worst case for Fukushima-generated exposure to radiation in Japan was so trivial there was never any need for mass evacuation of British nationals.  For some of us that’s a statement of the bleeding obvious, but a more interesting example was the very low mortality per infection of swine flu compared with bird flu which apparently meant it could never become a serious health issue.  (Though it was depressing to hear Beddington reel off numbers differing by a factor of 10 for this with a Guardian-like disregard for such numerical discrepancies.)

Most importantly Beddington hid behind his job description to present the problem rather than a range of options for action.  There was no discussion of low regret decision making, resilience/antifragility or the other tools of the future looking risk manager.  Instead he gave the impression that all the decisions are taken in COBRA.  We all know what that’s like from Spooks and its ilk so I guess we can count on being saved at the eleventh hour and fifty ninth minute.  Perhaps there should be a Chief Government Risk Manager.

But to pursue this, “climate change, urbanisation and growing population are leading us to inevitable disaster; the politicians had better do something.”  End of.  According to Lovelock, the second is the solution to the first and third and it would be great to know what action the Government could take to stop them, or even prevent their global effects impacting us sceptred islanders here.  Hence the picture of King Canute (and not Richard II).

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