Risk and Uncertainty

The third in our series on ‘words matter’ by Douglas Bartlett, Manager Asset Planning, City of Kalamunda.  Do you agree? As usual, Doug welcomes your responses and alternatives.

Grenfell Tower Fire June 14

Grenfell Tower Fire June 2017

Risk management, when taken to its root cause, is about the potential harm to an individual. But not just any individual, it is the harm to the person assessing the risk. We are all, by nature, selfish and will always assess and measure things against ourselves (no matter how gracious and service oriented we may be). If I assess the risk of a Bike Plan failing to deliver its outcomes, I can talk about how the community won’t get the health benefits or maybe safety improvements that it needs, but whether these things happen or not is irrelevant to me unless I (personally) can be affected by it. I can be affected by getting blamed for the failed outcomes, or by losing reputation. So the core perception of risk comes down to how the individual perceives the threat of harm.

Risks are ‘managed’ by introducing practices that are thought to decline the level of risk. Risks (in terms of AM planning) are typically recorded only for significant events, and treatments are also typically not analysed in detail. So the activity of risk management in AM may suffer from a lack of detail, and also may suffer from the assumption that management practices will manage the risk.

In my job, I am uncertain on a day to day basis. I am uncertain when I reply to a request for a new path, because I can’t be sure if the path is really needed. I am uncertain when a developer wants to discharge stormwater into the drain pipe, because despite the calculations and standards there are a huge number of assumptions being made. From an analytical and statistical perspective, I am uncertain most of the time.

So which term is more useful? In consideration of our selfish natures, is it more harmful to me to be uncertain or to try to manage risk? I am uncertain on a day to day basis and it does not appear to be causing me harm. By implication then I won’t try to change practices where they appear to be working (no matter how uncertain they may be). So, I think Risk is the better term as it will drive a reaction from the individual.

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