07 May 1999 - 09 May 1999

Understanding, managing and presenting risk in public policy

Chair: Professor John Ashworth

The convening of our conference was prompted by a sense that issues of risk nowadays featured much more widely and explicitly in public consciousness than appeared to be the case a generation ago.  Some of us wondered whether this really reflected deeper public concern as distinct from media attention.  Others noted that at least for most people in developed countries the world was by several measures actually a less dangerous and uncertain place than in the past;  and that popular focus upon risk (for example on which carcinogens should be worried about) sometimes seemed near-capricious.  But the greater general salience of risk in discussion of public policy was scarcely deniable. 

We adumbrated a variety of possible causes for this heightened sensitivity.  The accelerating advance of science-based innovation released a stream of new possibilities and accompanying perceived risks;  for this reason – and perhaps also because of increased centralisation and internationalisation of power – non-expert individuals might feel mounting unease about the remoteness, scale and incomprehensibility of changes affecting daily life.  The fact that science could do more prompted greater debate about whether it always should.  There was also a fading of willingness to accept unkind fate and life’s uncertainties, and a growth in cultures of blame and of litigation (unhealthily lawyer-encouraged, suggested one or two voices) when mishap struck.  A strong sense, at least in some countries, that government must somehow act whenever things went wrong marched uncomfortably with a widespread general decline in popular confidence in government and authority.

This problem of mistrust exercised us considerably.  High-profile “failure” stories – contaminated blood, BSE/CJD, nuclear alarms – shook public faith;  and opinion polls now disconcertingly suggested that individuals often trusted most those who were in fact least equipped, by responsible professional involvement, to understand risk accurately.  There was a propensity to impute disreputable motive and bad faith, to cry “vested interest” and to suspect hidden agenda.  That often applied not only to decision-takers within government and business but also to their scientific advisers and research backing, posing awkward dilemmas about how scientific effort was to be funded – and made properly accountable within society’s legitimate priorities – without compromising perceived independence.  Several participants, regarding the current depth of mistrust as both unjustified and pernicious for sensible risk-control, identified its alleviation as a high priority for action.

As often at Ditchley, we were worried about the part played by the media, especially in settings like the United Kingdom where fierce competition among them continually strained professional standards.  There were powerful temptations to dramatise, controversialise and sentimentalise, with distortion, exaggeration and even manipulation;  disproportionate scares (like the “threat” of electro-magnetic fields, or issues like dangerous dogs and beef-on-the-bone in the United Kingdom) could be started with a spread and swiftness which the inevitably-careful rhythms of scientific study and governmental consideration rarely matched.  The unmoderated Internet flood might magnify such problems.  One comment – not by a bureaucrat! – conjectured that in some fields freedom-of-information legislation might damage measured and candid deliberation within government.  And though the right sort of Parliamentary/Congressional-committee debate could be helpful to sound decision and public understanding, the political incentives towards short-termist adversarialism frequently converged with the media’s temptations.

Some healthy “buts” were to be heard hereabouts.  The media were a necessary check to established power, and some excesses were an inescapable price.  Past reverence for authority had often been excessive.  And publics were not stupid;  they were well able occasionally to recognise overblown alarm and precipitate regulation, and to learn accordingly.

Amid all this the role of scientists was plainly of cardinal, though not conclusive, importance.  The great majority of “risk” issues exercising governments and publics turned in at least large measure upon factors susceptible to or requiring scientific evaluation;  and the first task of scientists was to provide that evaluation to proper standards.  Dispassion in this was less easy or guaranteed than popular opinion supposed, and sound disciplines such as peer review or equivalent methods remained essential.  Most of us were disposed – despite one eloquent claim that amid the modern world’s uncertainties scientists should be readier to break cover with early warning in advance of what traditional scholarly caution would suggest – to accept that all this could not be rushed;  particular issues quite aside, the general credibility of scientific communities was (as one or two vivid recent aberrations might illustrate) a public asset of long-term value.

But we knew that science had no universal gold standard;  that it could scarcely ever offer total assurance;  that the world contained real uncertainties which even the wisest research could not dissolve, especially where the timescales of maturing risk were very long;  and, crucially for our theme, that many “risk” issues in policy turned ultimately upon personal and social values and upon political judgement amid incommensurables.  Science might narrow, but could not wholly bridge, the gap which such judgement had to leap in making decisions.  And scientists needed skills – not always now evident, though improvement was to be found in some professional fields like medicine – in communicating both the content and quality of what they could offer and its limitations.  That carried us briefly to the other partners in dialogue – political leaders, officials and (especially) the public.  We hankered after better education in schools, for example in the concepts of probability, to equip individuals to grasp risk issues more intelligently.

What we wanted to have better understood were the trade-offs between risks and benefits – the fact that reducing risk usually had costs (directly or in benefit foregone) and was therefore not automatically to be welcomed;  that proportionality mattered – in some fields pressures for even further safety or assurance had imposed burdens far exceeding real gains;   and that affordability, or the merit of competing claims upon resources consumed in risk reduction, was almost always a legitimate consideration.  Over-emphasis on dangers – the downside of action amid uncertainty  - could stifle creativity and innovation, and (as experience in the medical profession increasingly showed) might narrow the willingness of those best able to help in difficult situations to do so.

We were reminded that risk came in significantly different categories generating different public attitudes (quite aside from national cultural variations, themselves sometimes substantial, as transatlantic clashes over genetically-modified crops illustrated).  Individuals were normally more willing to accept risk in situations where they felt able to make their own trade-offs about it, and where the “upside” benefit was clear to them.  In such situations, many participants believed, the proper role of public authorities should go no further than helping make it possible for reasonable people to understand the trade-offs – in the financial field, for example, to ensure a level playing-field rather than limit freedom by preventing people from taking risks whose outcomes did not stand to damage third parties.  One or two voices nevertheless reminded us that societies which regarded certain kinds of personal catastrophe as intolerable – destitution, for example, or grave injury or malady untreated – might have both a right and a duty to constrain the freedom to ruin oneself.

What could governments best do to enhance both their own skills and credibility in handling uncertainty and sensible public comprehension of risk?  Better explanation, more transparency, more timely candour, said several comments (not all of which however tackled the accompanying problem of coping with likely demands in consequence for swifter action and greater assurance than available knowledge could sustain).  Better presentation of cost-benefit trade-off, too – again however not always easy or uncontentious;  and we recalled moreover that risk-control in the public arena involved issues of substance, not just public-relation handling.  Better design of regulatory institutions? – we found tensions here, with some participants suspecting that overdone abhorrence of apparent conflict of interest might tend to create agencies whose own focus was too narrowly toward risk-reduction as invariably good rather than towards proper trade-off;  under-regulation, this opinion held, was too readily assumed to be a greater sin than over-regulation, and indeed (contrarily to much popular perception) public officials of most kinds were usually – perhaps because of adversarial political pressures – biased towards risk-aversion.

Many of us were sceptical of the value of the courts and judge-based enquiries as instruments within risk-control systems;  the mindsets of hindsight and of dispute-centred winner-loser outcomes were not naturally conducive to fair appraisal of risk-management amid uncertainty and value-difference.  We looked rather towards mechanisms which would bring together, in more measured settings than those of journalistic rivalry and political contest, ranges of relevant interests in ways which could both directly improve decision-making, by illuminating competing considerations, and command greater public confidence.  We acknowledged that not all vocal participants in public debate were of solid staying-power, legitimacy and accountability, and truly prepared to cooperate in necessary compromises and responsibility-sharing;  and several participants suspected also that more extensive delegation of complex decisions to panels of experts, as one vigorous opinion urged, could retain public confidence only within fairly restricted technical fields – in democracies the buck could ultimately stop only with elected leaders as the ultimate traders-off.  (The very different UK experiences with the issues of human genetic information in insurance situations and with the acceptability of genetically-modified foods – the former largely defused through careful consultation, the latter by no means so – exemplified some of the difficulties.)  But we recognised that in general wider involvement, more evident governmental listening, more timely consultation and more structured use of credible intermediaries should all be further exploited in order to lighten the burdens and strengthen the acceptance of decision-making.

We were reminded of the key concerns of the business sector in public risk-control – concerns which nowadays increasingly (and on the whole healthily) included a concern for reputation.  Despite routine suspicion about motivations, business was for the most part genuinely concerned – in its own long-term interest – to see risk well addressed, and it needed to be involved in public consideration accordingly.  We heard it urged, from this standpoint, that risk-management could often be better tackled by joint monitoring and cooperative dialogue than by the mistrustful imposition of rule.

We noted that in respect of some classes of risk popular tolerance was affected by the degree to which public or other insurance provision was perceived as dealing adequately with adverse outcomes, for example in compensation or generous care for the small minority for whom universal vaccination programmes serving clear common interest turned out badly.

Had we had a week rather than just a weekend for our conference we would have sought to debate more fully the force and merits of the “precautionary principle”, for example as applied to the high-profile test case of uncertainty at several levels, the global-warming controversy.  We were conscious too that we had not plumbed the issues of how far, and how expensively, to cater for conceivable disasters of high magnitude but very low probability;  or the attitudes behind apparent public willingness to accept massive harms accumulating gradually much more readily than lesser ones of concentrated incidence.

We recognised indeed that across the “risk” field taken as a whole public outlooks were too diverse and often too instinctual to be wholly tractable by the methods of rationality, however refined and well-communicated.  But though there were evidently divergences of view among us about how far rationality could hope to take us, there seemed to be broad acknowledgement that it could take us further than at present;  and that governments could usefully develop more fully and persuasively the skills, techniques and frameworks for exploiting it.

This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman:  Professor John Ashworth
Chairman, The British Library

Mr James C Baillie

Senior Partner and Chairman, Executive Committee, Tory, Tory, Deslauriers & Binnington
Mr L Denis Desautels
Auditor General of Canada
Dr David Dodge
Deputy Minister, Health
Professor Niels C Lind
Distinguished Professor Emeritus, University of Waterloo;  Fellow, Canadian Institute for Risk Assessment

Dr Kieke G H Okma

Executive Secretary, Committee for Dutch Health Care Reforms, Ministry of Health, Welfare and Cultural Affairs

Professor John Adams

Department of Geography, University College London
Miss Jenny Bacon CB
Director General, Health and Safety Executive
Mr Mark Boléat
Director-General, Association of British Insurers
Mr Tony Cameron
Head of Food & Agriculture, Scottish Office
Sir Anthony Cleaver 
Chairman, AEA Technology
Mr Sebastian Cody
Open Media
Professor Mary Douglas CBE
Professor Emeritus, Northwestern University
Ms Ann Foster
Director of Public and Government Affairs, Monsanto plc
Lord Haskins
Chairman, Northern Foods plc
Professor Christopher Hood
Professor of Public Administration and Public Policy, Department of Government, London School of Economics and Political Science
Sir Robert Horton
Chairman, Railtrack plc
Mr Simon Jenkins
The Times
Dr Jenny Kitzinger
Deputy Director, Glasgow University Media Research Unit
Dr Nancy J Lane OBE
Cell biologist, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge
Mr John Mayne CB
Director, Carnegie Young People Initiative
Dr Colin Merritt
Business Development Manager, Monsanto plc
Sir Richard Mottram KCB
Permanent Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions
Professor Norman Myers CMG
Consultant in environment and development
Dr Paul Ormerod
Director, Centre for the Exploitation of Science and Technology
Mr Richard Packer
Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
Dr David Pencheon
Public Health Director, Institute of Public Health, Cambridge
Mr Perri 6
Senior Research Fellow, Department of Government, University of Strathclyde
Ms Auriol Stevens
Editor, The Times Higher Education Supplement
Professor Robert M Worcester
Chairman, Market and Opinion Research International

Professor Timothy O’Riordan

Department of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia

Dr Ragnar Löfstedt

Lecturer in Social Geography and Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey

The Honorable Mortimer L Downey

Deputy Secretary, US Department of Trnasportation
Professor Theodore R Marmor
Professor of Public Policy and Management, School of Organization and Management, Yale University
Professor Eugene B Skolnikoff
Professor of Political Science, Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Mr Fred L Smith Jr
President, Competitive Enterprise Institute
Mr James T Sykes
Associate Director, Institute on Aging, University of Wisconsin
Dr James A Thomson
President and Chief Executive, RAND Corporation