Risk management in a policy environment: The particular challenges associated with extreme risks

Publication by Claire Craig
Published on 12 April 2018

Highlights

  • Approaches to general risk management in policy provide a useful starting point for consideration of extreme risks.
  • Experience of civil emergencies shows the importance of avoiding groupthink and narrow disciplinary discussions.
  • Visualisation and narrative, including futures work, can be used to shape and bound risks and to engage audiences.
  • Risk considered in innovation policy shows the need to consider inaction as well as action, and path dependency.

Abstract

This essay explores the ways in which understandings derived from approaches to general risk management in the policy environment provide a useful starting point for wider consideration of approaches to extreme risks. The findings are not the result of a research project, but draw on practice and reflection on risk management and strategic futures in central government in the UK over the last 15 years, with an emphasis on the role of the Government Chief Scientific Advisor and Government Office for Science.

From the perspective of a policy-maker, extreme risks are likely to be viewed initially through the lens of experience of risk in policy-making more generally. Approaches to the management of well-characterised risks in the context of civil emergencies show the importance of linking assessments of risk to the purpose of making the assessment, of communication and engagement, and of avoiding groupthink and narrow disciplinary discussions. In some cases where the risks cannot be well-characterised or easily imagined, new forms of visualisation and narrative, including futures work, can be used to shape and bound the risks and to engage policy-makers or citizens. Approaches to risk management in the context of innovation policy show the need to consider the risk of inaction as well as action, and the importance of path dependency.

This paper was originally presented at our 2016 Cambridge Conference on Catastrophic Risk, and was published in a Special Issue of Futures edited by Dr Adrian Currie.

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