National risk assessment authority needed to better prepare for risk

Aotearoa New Zealand needs to set up a national risk assessment authority to better prepare the country for high-impact risks and disasters.

That’s one of the suggestions in a commentary written by Sir Peter Gluckman and Dr Anne Bardsley, Director and Deputy Director of Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures at Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland.

Download commentary here

In Risk listening: rethinking how we understand and manage risk, the authors say our understanding of the “riskscape” is clearly inadequate, as highlighted by the response and preparedness for the catastrophic weather events in the first two months of 2023.

“There remains a deep disconnect between risk science and decision making,” says Sir Peter.

The authors say given New Zealand’s small size, a more coherent system of risk assessment and decision-making should be possible. But we’re being held back by New Zealand’s  “she’ll be right” attitude and culture, resulting in a country which continues to ignore the lessons from previous events.

As the country prepares for the inquiry into preparations for and the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle and the other recent weather bombs which caused destruction across the North Island, Dr Bardsley says these events are never just matters for a single agency or ministry to contend and we cannot pass up the opportunity to learn and apply lessons.

“We can do this better. Lessons need to be recorded while they are still fresh and acted upon in a continually updated risk assessment process,” Dr Bardsley says.

Climate change, widening of inequity and loss of social cohesion are examples of other types of stress that amplify hazard events.

“Every major event exaggerates the issues of inequality and the disadvantaged always suffer more,” she says.

Sir Peter says risk assessment and response should not be politicised, as the underlying issues are long-term and non-partisan.

He says issues of risk communication are more nuanced than simply providing an analysis. They require new thinking to get beyond the cognitive and political biases that impede risk “listening”.

“An independent national risk assessment unit reporting to Parliament rather than the political Executive might be a good start.”

“There is a case for developing multi-hazard early warning systems, improving the availability and use of risk-related data and improving disaster monitoring to consider vulnerability.

“The concept of a national risk register should be extended and maintained independently of the political community. It must be public-facing as well as policy-facing, otherwise it is of limited value for all those who need to know what to think about. Transparency is essential.  It must be informed through engaging with a diversity of expertise and perspectives to develop scenarios for a broad range of complex and compounding risks,” he says.

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