Reducing Public Risk and Improving Public Resilience: What’s to Be Done?

Tony Bovaird and Barry Quirk

All is not well in the risk assessment and management field. Current approaches don’t seem to work well and may not even be worth the time and energy we spend on them – indeed, they may be actively damaging our ability to cope with the current risks in our environment. Why is this?

Risk is how we measure today the adverse impact or losses we think may happen in the future.  While risk is something that can be priced or measured, uncertainty is much harder to gauge. In line with practice in the risk assessment and management industry, we here use the word ‘risk’ to cover all the factors which contribute to uncertainty, whether or not they can be captured by probability estimates.

Although risk can be found everywhere, in public service it takes on a slightly different character.  One of the core purposes of government is to minimise risks to the public.  People expect their governments to act when there is a risk of serious harm, whether it be from market failure, social crisis or environmental disaster. And in a world of “big data” and hypercritical commentators, it is little wonder that politicians and public managers can often seem frozen in the glare of the possible risks of failure.

Paradoxically, some risks are themselves partly caused by public institutions.  In the current climate of reducing public resources, those risks that require perhaps the most attention are the risks to the public and to service users from the scale and nature of changes in the public sector itself. The prospect of public service failure is higher than ever before.  The radical cuts in public spending are in some areas leading to service withdrawal, service rationing and reductions in service standards.  This is occurring alongside significant welfare reform changes.  In consequence, many service users are experiencing a degradation of the service levels, standards and facilities which they may have previously regarded as critically important.   As part of the Government’s “Localism” strategy, local authorities are being encouraged to increase the level of their partnership and community engagement activities but it is already clear that there are real risks that partner bodies (from the community, voluntary, social and private sectors) may be unable to deliver the required services at an acceptable standard, particularly given the rapid pace of the transition that is underway.

The White Paper on Open Public Services commits HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office to working closely with departments in order to develop ‘continuity regimes’, as an integral part of their modernisation programmes. However, it offers few details of what this might mean in practice.

The traditional approach to risk management is founded in institutional audit that understandably privileges financial control by pricing future uncertainties in a measurable way.  It fosters managerial compliance strategies that attempt to reduce or avoid repeated or systemic operational errors as well as measure foreseeable hazards and harms. These approaches are useful up to a point.  However, they have also resulted in complex “blame avoidance strategies” where public agencies attempt to minimise damage to themselves and deflect blame for failure.  Rather than opening up options, these approaches often close them down, undermining pragmatism and common sense.  The ubiquity of risk management in public service organisations can seem to stifle innovation by fostering a culture of paralysis focussed fearfully on, “what worst events might happen” and encouraging low risk appetites and risk averse behaviour.

While people are eager to embrace accountability for their actions when things go well, they are perhaps even more keen to avoid blame for when things go wrong. The difference, within public agencies, between a mature approach to accountability that fosters responsible and empowered risk taking and an immature blame culture that seeks to personalise error and fault, is the key to understanding how our approaches to public risk can be improved.

We therefore suggest that a radically new approach to risk is now urgently needed. This should begin with a focus more on risks to the public service outcomes experienced by service users and their communities.  In practice, more weight often appears to be given to risks experienced by politicians, senior managers, staff and their organisations. This is only likely to be put right if the power imbalance in public agencies is directly addressed, so that users and communities become directly involved in the strategic decisions around risk, and their views count in the calculus employed within the agency – a co-production approach between citizens and public agencies.

Secondly, the approach to risk in the public sector has also suffered from how it has been used in strategic decision making.  We can distinguish four quite distinct strategies towards risk in public services:

  • activity portfolio management: choosing a portfolio of activities with lower risk attached;
  • risk reduction in the environment: either reducing the likelihood of key risks or influencing their character so that particularly worrying features of those risks are made less damaging;
  • building resilience to risk into the service system, including the activities of providers and the behaviours of service users, their support networks and their communities;
  • risk enablement: encouraging decision makers in the service system to choose activities with appropriate levels of risk, rather than assuming that risk minimisation is always right.

These strategies are not, of course, mutually exclusive. The first two are essentially  preventative, the third is about mitigation of risks and the fourth is about learning to live appropriately with the levels of risk which the organisation faces.  In practice, the public sector has been highly selective in the risk strategies on which it has focused, giving most weight to the first two strategies. This needs to change, with risk enablement in particular becoming more dominant.

The concept of a  ‘risk enablement strategy’ builds in particular on innovative risk enablement practices in adult safeguarding in social care. It involves taking a balanced and proportionate approach to risk, finding ways to enable individuals, communities and organisations to achieve what care about, while considering what keeps individuals and the community safe from harm in a way that makes sense for them (Neill et al, 2008: 7). It requires public agencies to foster a culture of positive risk taking, where these ‘risky’ proposals offer a good prospect for raising the level of outcomes for citizens. A strategy of risk enablement rather than risk avoidance or minimisation needs to build on principles of: outcome-driven policies and activities; user and community co-production; transparency; resilience; collective responsibility and integrity; and professional responsibility and integrity.

Thirdly, we need to get to grips with resilience. The recent social science literature on resilience has stressed the idea of resilience as ‘adaptive ability’.  This goes beyond traditional definitions of resilience – ‘engineering resilience’ (where the level of resilience is measured by speed of return to the pre-existing equilibrium) and ‘ecological resilience’ (where the level of resilience is measured by the size of shock or disturbance that can be absorbed before the system changes structure or function, shaped by a different set of processes).

A truly resilient system of public services, fashioned to achieve publicly desired outcomes, requires attention to the resilience of the agents within the system, specifically citizens (both as co-producting service users and collectively as communities) and organisations (specifically service providers), as well resilience in the design of the overall service system. We suggest that there must be at least some suspicion that public agencies often over-emphasise the embedding of resilience into the formal service provision process, given the potential for damage to agencies and their staff when service provision fails – but have therefore tended to underemphasise resilience of service users and communities.

Let us be clear. We are not suggesting that public organisations or staff should launch into radically higher levels of risk – what we are discussing is more likely to result in a different portfolio of risks. Indeed, our  approach is partly about owning up to the facts that service users are already facing quite high levels of risk to their desired outcomes and that the interventions of the public sector have only ever achieved limited risk reduction. The key is that the appropriate risk reduction strategies should be agreed by users and communities, not by agency leaders (based on their own self-interest).

We see this radically new approach to risk as being urgently needed. However, this new approach must itself be seen as tentative and unproven. The uncertainty that the public sector in that part of its work which operates in complex and chaotic knowledge domains requires all of us to possess more humility about how much we can know, how much we can change and how cost-effective our public interventions are likely to be.

Consequently, this new approach requires both experimentation and research.  Until better evidence is available, we need to own up to how little we really know about the risks we face in relation to the outcomes that matter to citizens.  We need to acknowledge the scale of the unknown factors and dynamics which can undermine the efficacy of even the best designed service.  And we also need to recognise the partial character and limited effectiveness of those mechanisms that are designed by government and public agencies to protect the public from future harms.  Such humility is a prerequisite to learning. Refusing to acknowledge the limitations to our knowledge is perhaps the biggest risk of all faced by government in this era of public service austerity.

Source: This blog is a summary  of: Tony Bovaird and Barry Quirk (2013), Reducing Public Risk and Improving Public Resilience: An Agenda for Risk Enablement Strategies. In Staite, C. (ed.)(2013). Making sense of the future: can we develop a new model for public services? (Birmingham: University of Birmingham/INLOGOV).

The full paper contains a set of references to the sources used in this blog.


Tony Bovaird, Professor of Public Management and Policy, INLOGOV and Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham.

Barry Quirk, CEO, London Borough of Lewisham and



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