About ‘Public Risk’

Focus: ‘Working from definition, marking and philosophy’.

Introduction

During the founding of the idea of PRIMO in Strasbourg on the 1st of April 2005, the need for design principles related to the governance of public risk was extensively discussed. We, to be precise the executive committee of the European Association of Local Chief Executives UDITE, defined it as a form or way of working towards the prevention and reduction of possible hazards and risks (i.e. a measure of hazard) in our (European) cities, to build public trust on values like safety, quality of life, protection and coherence in society. Anno 2020 we reflect on and specify these principles.

A myriad to deal with

Based on experiences in this network we conclude that most of the public leaders and managers we meet – and if we ask them in our Public Risk Forum, round tables and thinktanks -, define risk all in their own way. It is a myriad of definitions and perceptions. We guess there are 100 different definitions of risk around, all based on unique principles, perspectives, angles, and driven towards further segmentation by a myriad of advisors, trainers, scientists (o, yes), and software developers. All created in and by their own approaches, leading to a highly segmented and fragmented landscape of risk and risk management. Moreover, this landscape is widened through the attempts of rebranding this craftsmanship towards success management, value management, business continuity management, risk leadership management, chances management, quality management. “In fact”, is said, “risk is not about risk, but about something else, about the risk of something.” We think too. How to proceed and promote a common language and understanding from here? And how exactly to contribute to this?

A wobbly landscape

To be frank, it is not only the difference in definition that causes the wobbly landscape of risk,  but we know that with every definition comes a unique framework, methodology, method, technique, and set of tools. In fact, an unwanted and undesired situation from the perspective of knowledge sharing, efficient and effective working. Certainly in our profession of public risk management, i.e. the management of the public domain (and values within) of citizen, society, and the natural environment – PRIMO has chosen to stay very close to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s), the national and international Constitutions and the governmental plans and programs, based on democratically held elections. This to come to effective decision making, governance, and management, it would be conditional – in fact it is a constraint of the first order – that there should be an understandable and shareable definition and approach.

Communication and promotion as mission

PRIMO has decided to go stick to basics. More than often we are asked which definition of risk we recommend and why. And more and more, we are asked if we please could encourage and contribute to a more consistent way of use and understanding of risk and risk management. Therefore we underline our definition. We will communicate it more actively in the coming years and will promote it by involving stakeholders through our portfolio of advice, research, and education. In that, we try to connect it to and port it with other definitions, to possibly build a kind of translation mechanism.

Renn and Klinke (2002)

We think that most of the used definitions of risk combine causes, drivers, triggers, stimuli and consequences or effects with the core part of risk itself. We think that it is wise to unlink these because it is our experience that most of the discussions in teams and groups end-up with “a lost in translation’ feeling and as far as we know not a common understanding. Most definitions are academically and institutionally based. Most public leaders cannot cope with that in the daily governance of public values. Besides that, most of the 100 definitions in town are hard to understand by the human mind, even definitions of renowned institutions or universities.

The definition which comes close to the essence of risk and risk management has been coined in 2002 by Ortwin Renn and Andreas Klinke. At the founding of PRIMO in 2005, we actually have chosen this definition, because it is best based on historic principles and best connected with its etymological origin (the Romans used the word riscare, meaning to run into danger). Renn and Klinke (2002) define:

Risk is the possibility that human actions or events lead to consequences that harm aspects that humans value. 

This definition is complete in its internal coherence between the core of risk, the human species in the center of the firmament [1,] – we think that also not humans, being groups, organisations, clusters or agglomerations of organisations, as well as natural ecosystems with other species in charge -, the trigger, stimulus or cause [2], and the cascading process leading to… [3]).

Risk is the possibility [that human, 1] [actions or events, 2] [lead to consequences, 3] that harm (aspects) that [humans] value.

If we deduct and reduce this definition to the core of risk, based on Renn and Klinke (2002), risk can be defined as:

possible harm to something of value

In the approach of the PRIMO association, it is all about the public value, firstly that of citizen, society and natural environment and secondly that of all organisations – public or private – which play an active role in the development and delivery of or contribution to this value. Risk is linked with value and considered as deviation of or harm to value. We think that value is the optimum, based on formulation, calculation, or decision. We work from here.

 

Bibliography

Renn, O. and Klinke; A.  ( 2002). A New Approach to Risk Evaluation and Management: Risk-Based, Precaution-Based and Discourse-Based Management. Risk Analysis, Vol. 22, No. 6 (December), 1071-1994.

Photo: Part of Three of Life, World Expo Milan 2016, © Jack Kruf