Transparency and openness in risk management
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Cabinet Office/HM Treasury: Principles of Managing Risks to the Public

Openness and transparency

Government will be open and transparent about its understanding of the nature of risks to the public and about the process it is following in handling them.

Government will make available its assessments of risks that affect the public, how it has reached its decisions, and how it will handle the risk. It will also do so where the development of new policies poses a potential risk to the public. When information has to be kept private, or where the approach departs from existing practice, it will explain why. Where facts are uncertain or unknown, government will seek to make clear what the gaps in its knowledge are and, where relevant, what is being done to address them. It will be open about where it has made mistakes, and what it is doing to rectify them.

Strategy Unit's Risk: improving government's capability to handle uncertainty

5.16 The Code of Practice on Access to Government Information has set out a clear presumption towards openness in all areas of policy making, while recognising that some information needs to remain confidential.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000, which comes fully into force in 2005, enshrines those principles in legislation. The Act will be a major tool of change within government and is likely to provide a strong impetus for openness in risk communication. In addition, Departments are now required to publish Risk Frameworks that set out how decisions are made on risks that affect the public.

5.25 The Strategy Unit study has identified three main areas where there may be scope for improvement:

• more openness in providing access to information about risks to the public and about where Departments have made mistakes. Our analysis suggests that concerns are particularly marked where there is uncertainty about the nature or scale of the risk or where there is public dispute about the issues. In these circumstances, members of the public are least likely to trust the information they receive, and more likely to want to know the assumptions that Departments have used to inform their judgements;

• more transparency about the processes used to reach decisions. Our analysis suggests that scepticism tends to be highest where members of the public perceive themselves or their families to be directly at risk or where they cannot perceive direct benefits to them. In these circumstances, Departments may need to review whether they are doing enough to address this – in particular, by demonstrating that the approach they are taking is based on firm evidence, is responsive to public concerns, and is open to acknowledging uncertainty or dissent;

• more systematic involvement of the public in decisions about risks that affect them or concern them. This is closely linked to the issue of empowerment discussed earlier in this chapter. Three specific concerns were raised in our study in relation to communication with the public about risks they face:

– communication needs to start earlier in the policy development and decision process, wherever possible when framing decisions are being made.

– communication with the public on risks that affect them needs to be a genuinely two-way process; and

– involvement of the public in decisions about risks, both formal and informal, needs to be as widespread and balanced as possible. Stakeholders we spoke to suggested that, by restricting formal consultation to their usual list of contacts, Departments were more vulnerable to "group think" and as a result, key risks were sometimes missed. Similar concerns were voiced about informal soundings such as public attitude surveys, with one politician we spoke to suggesting that Departments sometimes confuse market research with genuine involvement in the decision process.

5.35 Departments’ communication about risk should be based on principles of openness and transparency. Unless there are clear grounds for exemption, Departments that handle risks to members of the public should publish their risk assessments (discussed in chapter 4.2), and also the underlying facts, assumptions, sources of information and procedures behind them, as early as possible to enable public scrutiny to take place, as they will be required to do under the Freedom of Information Act.