The policy foundations for risk management in the Public Service of Canada were laid down a decade ago with the Integrated Risk Management Framework, which applies to all departments and agencies. Issued in 2001, it recognized that decision-making in vertical stove-pipes or silos was passé. "The (framework) moves away from the traditional view that zero risk is the only acceptable (one). It encourages public service employees to maximize their risk-reward balance by identifying opportunities among uncertainties," according to a Treasury Board pamphlet released at the time. "Our teams have to see that managed risk-taking is supported and that testing new ideas is valued" said Mel Cappe, then Clerk of the Privy Council .
The policy had taken hold unevenly across the government, as political leadership has tightened its control wherever risk is concerned. From personal experience, the lockdown on bureaucratic accountability has had the opposite effect to what was intended in the policy. Non-political decision-makers recoil at the mention of risk, seeming not to understand the difference between taking risks and managing them.
Risks are a fact of life. In the words of Mel Cappe, "managed risk-taking is supported". People were encouraged to use the techniques and devices of risk management in order to identify acceptable levels of risk for various programs. Then they were supposed to devise strategies designed to manage (i.e. plan, implement, evaluate and revise) selected programs and services in a controlled-risk setting. All over the system people did what public servants do. They filled out new forms designed to show that they identified risks and planned for ways to mitigate them. There were pockets where the action approximated the intent, like Public Safety Canada, which is in the business of emergency preparedness and response. But apart from the form-filling, we ask, are there other places where the principle has been respected in deeds as well as words? Public health agency pandemic preparations would seem to be another example of action, whatever you think of the performance.
Here is an instance where the observations of provincial, regional and community-based practitioners can offer real insights. All views are welcome.