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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.

  • The first step to creating such a framework was the identification of common elements; issues with relevance to a variety of perspectives in government.
  • The next step was the presentation of such elements in a manner that would stimulate discussion, facilitate comparisons and, where feasible, provide for the development of consistency in approach to 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 :

  • Managing uncertainty occurs within the process of making decisions. How that process operates, and what considerations feed into it, are key to the ability to deal effectively with uncertainty.
  • There is a public element to virtually all government decision-making, and it is a central and legitimate input to the process.
  • Uncertainty in science, together with competing policy interests (including international obligations) has led to increased focus on the precautionary approach.
  • A decision-making process does not occur in isolation -- the public nature and complexity of many government policy issues means that certain factors require active consideration at each stage of the process.

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:

  • identification of the issue;
  • analysis or assessment of the issue;
  • development of options;
  • decision;
  • implementation of the decision; and,
  • evaluation and review of the decision.

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 children’s 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.

  • In a public risk management framework, input from both the empirical and public contexts of assessment ensures a more complete range of information is available, thereby leading to the development of relevant and effective policy options.
  • It should also be recognized that the development of policy options inherently involves difficult trade-offs and the need to balance competing objectives and priorities, often leading to second-best solutions when viewed from a singular perspective.

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:

  • serves domestic interests (according to societal values and priorities);
  • is consistent with international obligations established through trade agreements or otherwise; and,
  • is flexible enough to have relevance in different policy areas.

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:

  • communications and consultation activities
  • legal considerations; and,
  • ongoing/operational activities.

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.

  • As a matter of current practice, stakeholder involvement and consultations are increasingly recognized as key to building acceptance and understanding of government policy decisions -- tacking a communication package on at the end of a decision process is neither a sufficient nor a successful means of communicating with the public and interested parties.
  • Particular challenges in developing a more integrated approach to communication and consultation activities throughout the decision process need to focus on several of the contextual aspects of risk:
  • the importance of perception or assessments;
  • degree of public tolerance for risk;
  • the role that pro-active risk communication (e.g. information, education) may play in building public understanding of risk and management of risk; and,
  • the need to gain/maintain public trust and its impact upon the credibility of government messaging.

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:

  • exposure to legal liability (associated with a breach of a duty of care, i.e. the duty to avoid causing loss or damage to others through negligence);
  • responsibility and accountability; and
  • compliance with international obligations (e.g. arising through international trade or multi-lateral environmental agreements or otherwise).

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.

  • Research, surveillance, monitoring and audit of programs and policies are examples of such activities.
  • In this context, the capacity of government to carry out scientific and policy research will have implications for the effectiveness of any risk management approach.


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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