Dealing with Risk

This publication is an attempt to spell out some of the difficulties flowing from the prevailing social attitudes towards risk acceptance and the effect the difficulties have on professional practice. It is primarily directed to practising professionals, and is intended to encourage and assist them to develop a broad community discussion about one of the most critical issues of our time. That is the yawning gap between the expectations which communities have of systems and the abilities of those systems to deliver.

The puplication is based on the theme that the task of managing expectations is central to the achievement of improvement in the risk acceptance environment, and it draws to the attention of professionals the pressing need they have to understand that societies and technologists construct their attitudes to risk acceptance differently; they march to different drummers, and neither seems to hear the other’s drums.

It is also apparent that the difficulties related to risk acceptance with which modem societies are grappling affect almost all those who provide services in an attempt to satisfy community demands. In a very real sense, identified by Arthur Koestler in the mid-fifties, humans are struggling to reconcile the power available to them with their value systems – which Koestler refers to as spiritual insight, awareness, charity and related values. The issues are global, and humans the world over are trying to come to terms with them.

What we need is a calm and reasoned debate which faces the issues squarely. It should be a debate conducted in the broadest possible terms and with a minimum of random noise.

The Australian Council of Professions hopes that its member associations and their members will join it in an attempt to stimulate such a debate; this publication is a potential catalyst. You, as an individual professional, can use it to assist the process.

Central to it must be the realisation that no action can be absolutely safe and nothing can be absolutely certain, least of all the future; and that efforts to improve safety cost money, cost time, cost people and even (if robots are the way to safety) cost jobs.

There is a common core to the liability issues. This publication seeks to identify that core, and make it available as a reference and support for discussions set in areas of specialisation. Thus such discussions may be properly seen as particular cases of a general proposition, and avoid the dilemmas associated with charges of special pleading.

The document had its genesis in publications of The Institution of Engineers (Engineers Australia) who I thank for permission to adapt the document to serve a more general purpose. In doing so, I gratefully acknowledge the research and authorship contribution of Dr. Peter Miller.

The pamphlet suggests a framework within which professional practitioners should consider risk, and examines a number of areas of special interest:

  • The Issues which are important to the ability of practitioners to deal with risk are canvassed. The dominant issue is the need to understand the gap between the expectation which demanders have of providers and the ability of providers to deliver. It is important to found our actions in Codes of Ethics, but there are difficulties in a complex society with the concept of the common good. This flows from the nature of the arrangements under which the professions practise. Practitioners will need to take part in much wider discussions than they have in the past, and be prepared to enter the wider debate about policies for societies.
  • The Social Construction of Risk is a new field of study which examines the way societies at large consider risk. It is clear that individual and collective decisions about the acceptance of risk consider both objective and subjective inputs, and in most cases the subjective dominates. It is important that practitioners should not only become familiar with the way societies and individuals construct concepts of risk, but also enter into the activity directly and influence the outcomes.
  • The Technological Construction of Risk traces the way professional practitioners consider risk and construct risk models. As part of this process the concepts of technology and design are examined and the pervasiveness of the concepts discussed.
    Although the technological construction of risk appears to be objective, and is usually interpreted by society in that way, its objectivity is flawed by the inherent inadequacy of technological models; and some practitioners who elevate their models to infallibility seem to lack confidence in the subjective power of experience and judgement, when they should realise that both are inherent and dominant in professional practice and should be used with pride.

It seems to the community that practitioners command models which are both objective and absolutely predictive, but in reality the ability of individual technological models to predict outcomes is very limited. The models, however, are very useful to assist the formation of judgements:

  • When practitioners try to explain risk in technological terms, such as “the risk associated with this medical procedure is 1 in 14,000” or “the annual probability of a failure is 1 in 1000” or “this land will be flooded by a 1 in 100 year flood“, few people understand and become more confused. Practitioners must rethink their approach to risk acceptance, and the paper examines how to begin that process.
  • The Human-Technology Interface is where most accidents occur. Many in the community who have to deal with post-accident trauma believe that professional practitioners have not been sufficiently interested in this interface, particularly in the physical, physiological and psychological implications; and such people are beginning to see this lack of interest by practitioners as negligent. A mismanaged conveyance or a mistaken diagnosis is an accident as potentially devastating as a building collapse or a mechanical failure, as is a faulty audit or an erroneous survey. The issue is pervasive to all professions. Practitioners must address this question, and some suggestions are canvassed.
  • Professional practitioners need to change their image in some respects because their present image does not properly convey the uncertainties which attend upon their work.
  • We need to understand the technological method properly, and there are many signs which indicate that we have seconded judgement and are giving primacy to mathematical and other models, despite their limitations.
  • We need to understand perceptions of risk particularly the enormous range of risks which societies accept, or appear to accept, and the role which standards play in this process.
  • We need to understand the legal process, particularly that it is a technological system which is also fallible.
  • We need to manage expectations, because the gap between the expectations people have of systems and the ability of those systems to deliver is unrealistic and misunderstanding of the gap is already counterproductive.
    Managing expectations can be a process by which we might improve understandings of the acceptance of risk; not only the expectations which the community has of practitioners, but also the expectations which surround the practice and organisation of the professions themselves. The current trend to criminalise behaviour surrounding accidents and procurement adds a new imperative. A structure for attempting this process is suggested, by way of a six-point plan.
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