Investment in mitigating risk is always a difficult Government decision

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Group of business people having meeting together in conference room, working on graphs with post-it notes.

-Op-ed to accompany the release of the latest Koi Tū report on high-impact risks

Sir Peter Gluckman
Director of Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures

It has been well publicised that public health experts have long predicted a pandemic such as that we are now experiencing, and it is clear that few governments were well prepared for what happened. The speed of the spread of the virus and its broad impacts were underestimated by many in decision-making roles in many countries. New Zealand was fortunate to have a geography that allowed it to easily shut its borders and importantly, it did so early enough to avoid the consequences many other countries have faced.

But over the last decade, we have faced many other high impact events, many of which were foreseeable, even if not predictable in terms of timing: these include biosecurity issues, infrastructure issues, security issues and natural disasters. Some we were well prepared but for others we were not or were taken by surprise.

Even before Covid-19 struck, there were rising global concerns about the state and use of risk assessment in public policy. Bodies such as the World Economic Forum and others regularly have brought attention to their assessments of risks which governments and civil society should take more seriously. The Boxing Day tsunami, the Fukushima catastrophe, SARS, and climate change all provoked the international community into considering risk more seriously. In 2015, the same year as the Paris Climate Change meeting, there was also a major international focus on risk assessment and reduction. This culminated in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction to which New Zealand along with 186 other countries are parties. It urged countries to undertake risk assessment much more systematically and transparently.

Through my international roles, especially with the International Science Council, I have been increasingly involved in discussions as to how risk assessment, in association with public policy formation, needs to be strengthened. Indeed, Covid-19 has highlighted how essentially very few countries were adequately prepared for what was an inevitable, high impact risk or event.

The Christchurch earthquakes, Pike River and the Rena wrecks occurred soon after I became Chief Science Advisor. In the nine years working across three governments there were a number of other significant adverse events. But it was the potential of a major space weather event of significant magnitude (that did not eventuate) that led to initiatives that initiated a rethink of the risk system within the policy community. In doing so, there were multiple hesitancies in both the policy and political community (but not by any of the three Prime Ministers that I served).

But a lot of that effort remains incomplete and hidden. Individual biases can inhibit the use of more analytical and integrated approaches. Many risks transcend individual ministries, and management and coordination across government is needed.

The underlying contract between citizens and State is that the State undertakes to protect them against foreseeable risks. Reflecting on the lessons we have learnt from Covid-19 and past events, and on global discussions with people involved in public risk management – it is clear we have some way to go to have a holistic, transparent and thus more useful system. Some feared that being transparent would create fear, others took a stance of denying the analyses or finding reasons to avoid accountability. These are not New Zealand-specific issues but are broadly based and understandable responses to risk assessment. There are complex psychologies in play.

Issues around investment decisions around mitigating uncertain risks will always be contested. Our latest Koi Tū report Uncertain but inevitable: The expert-policy-political nexus and high impact risks discusses difficulties in this process and suggests a way forward. It’s built on work that senior officials have done in recent years across several administrations.

The tragedy of the Christchurch massacre and the subsequent commission highlighted that some central agencies had a narrow focus on a particular class of risk. Transparency may have allowed those gaps to be identified much earlier. But importantly, risk assessment and management conducted across Government must be transparent – as other parties including local government, NGOs and communities themselves – need to know what the analyses say. And transparency is at the heart of a healthy democracy.

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