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CREATING A FRAMEWORK
With an understanding of key terms and risk management concepts, the next step was to develop a basisfor exploring issues of interest to government policy-makers -- a context in which to discuss, examine, and seek out inter-relationships between issues associated with making public policy decisions in an environment of uncertainty and risk, i.e. a framework of public risk management.
Key Common Elements
Through horizontal analysis of the public policy environment surrounding risk management, several key elements were identified as influencing the development of a platform for discussion :
Each of these elements, and their role in creating a framework of public risk management, is reviewed in more detail in the sections which follow.
3.1 A Decision-Making Process
The process of making decisions is quite standard, regardless of the context or sector considered, and this is perhaps the most fundamental linkage between the various perspectives across government. Emphasis on various points in the process may vary, as may the type, rigour or extent of actions considered, but the overall process is invariably the same. These are the six basic steps:
These steps can be as applicable to individual decisions about major purchases as they are to the development of a policy position on the privatization of airports or safety standards for childrens toys. How each step is managed and what considerations are fed into them will vary, but this process forms the basic structure of the framework for public risk management.
3.2 Incorporating the Public Element
In a policy environment where Ministers accountability to Parliament/the public, and the role of public servants in serving the public interest, are fundamental to the operation of government, recognition and understanding of public concerns is critical to the resolution of issues.
To present this concept within the decision-making process, the assessment step is developed into two contexts: empirical and public. They are separate processes, but it should be noted that neither context works alone.
Moreover, either context can trigger attention to an issue. Often, consideration of public concerns can increase (or, conversely, limit), the range of possible policy options. As an example, consider recycling. Public sentiment was so strongly behind the idea that it became environmental policy even in the face of technical, economic assessments that indicated it was an idea ahead of its time.
3.3 Precautionary Approach
The precautionary approach is an increasingly important element of public policy. As a method, or means, of dealing with uncertainty, it forces a conscious risk management decision (to act, or to not act) more frequently. In this sense, the prevalence of the precautionary approach itself reinforces the need for a risk management framework in public policy.
While the approach means different things depending upon the context, one well-known definition exists in respect of environmental protection policy, where Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration states:
"In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation."
This definition indicates that a lack of knowledge about possible risks of a given situation is not an excuse to avoid action, with certain caveats.
How this approach might be defined and applied in other sectors where scientific uncertainty exists is still unclear. It appears that its application will likely vary depending upon the severity of the risk, as well as the nature of the sector, or policy area (e.g. more stringent applications where human health and safety is at risk).
There is a great deal of work evolving throughout the world as various countries and trading partners seek to develop agreements and guidelines on how the approach may be interpreted and applied in a manner that:
For its part, Canada supports the Rio Declaration and Principle 15 has been incorporated into the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (1999) and several other federal and provincial statutes and environmental policies, but a comprehensive position on applying the approach more broadly requires wider attention within government.
In the framework on public risk management, the precautionary approach is presented as affecting both the development of options and the decision phases. While the approach is clearly linked to scientific analysis, (it cannot be applied without an appropriate assessment of scientific factors and consequent risks), it may also be impacted by international considerations and, ultimately, guided by judgement, based on values and priorities.
3.4 Constant Considerations
It was recognized a public policy decision-making process does not occur in isolation and that there are often considerations which require ongoing attention throughout the process. Three main categories of such factors were identified for purposes of the framework:
Risk communications as defined earlier, is a two-way, interactive process. To give effect to this definition, communication and consultation activities need to be considered at each step in the process.
Legal considerations were also identified as key concerns throughout a decision-making process. An initial review of the main considerations in the context of public risk management suggests that they include:
Work related to these issues is ongoing (e.g. duty of care -- a concept referred to frequently, but not always well understood). They are flagged in the framework to highlight the importance of involving legal counsel throughout a risk management process with the aim of understanding and planning for a range of legal implications.
Ongoing and operational activities includes various types of work that happen continually, often unseen day-to-day, but critical to maintaining the ability to act on an informed basis and, often serving as an early warning system.
3.5 Synopsis of the Framework
The schematic below provides a synopsis of the framework issues identified above. It focuses on functions, or steps in the process, rather than labels and specific instructions. It draws out the key elements from a horizontal perspective in order to stimulate discussion and facilitate a coordination of effort in developing a more comprehensive approach to risk management in the government.
* Graphic available only in Adobe Acrobat format; View Annex A
At the same time, because of its general approach, the framework is adaptable enough to be tailored to specific areas of specialization and may therefore be used as a reference point in advancing the discussion of risk management into a case or sector-specific context, and in comparing sectors as needed.
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