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Being positive about risk

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A fight-back against the fear of risk-taking has begun.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) has agreed 10 principles to govern their risk-taking. Professor Munro, in her review of child protection procedures and practices, endorsed them. And the government, in its response to her report, has agreed. Should local government join this momentum and endorse a set of principles which could embrace all its services?

On one level the principles are too basic, obvious. Take number 4, for example: ‘Harm can never be totally prevented. Risk decisions should, be judged by the quality of the decision making, not by the outcome’.

It should be self-evident; harm can occur no matter how well the decision was taken. That is what makes it a ‘risk’.

But many find it difficult to accept this truth. A young child, in the care of a local authority, is killed. A professional must have been at fault. No, it simply does not follow. No investigation should assume fault. Some members of the media are prone to making this mistake.

By adopting such a principle, local government, like ACPO, would be reminding all those who judge the actions of their staff (not just managers), as well as the media and the public, to focus on the processes, not just the outcomes of risk-taking.

Employers promise to support all employees who act in accordance with the principles (no. 10). Everyone is reminded (no. 3) that professional risk-taking is purposive, is about balancing the value of potential benefits against the significance of possible harms. The importance of allowing someone to remain in their own home, or a child to go on a field trip, must be balanced against the likelihood of harm. Risk-taking is so much more important, and difficult, than mere harm-avoidance.

Adopting the risk principles should also lead to fewer findings of fault, and therefore compensation payments. For example principle 6 provides risk takers with a clear, yet concise, practical standard. Their decisions must, at least, be consistent with those which a responsible body of professionals, with similar expertise and experience, would have made.

This is consistent with the standard of care required by the law of negligence. They do not have to make perfect decision, just ones which are justifiable in terms of current professional practice.

The principles encourage everyone to think more carefully about risk-taking. For example, many apparent ‘risks’ taken by local authority professionals should be analysed as ‘dilemmas’ or ‘emergencies.’ The courts take decision-making difficulties into account and accept a lower standard of care.

So professionals who must make a risk decision ‘on-the-spot’ (i.e. in an emergency), or who discover that anything they decide could lead to harm (i.e. they must confront a dilemma), are entitled to have that taken into account (no. 5); but they must be able to explain that to any court or other inquiry.

The only valid argument against local government adopting the risk principles - hopefully along with the NHS, etc - is that they could go further. For example, they do not address problems with those who review possible cases of poor risk-taking. Do those enquiries, for example, make sufficient allowance for the hindsight, letalone the extra (calm) time and other resources they have with which to review professionals’ decisions?

Not only do the 10 principles provide local government with a rare win-win, but they could take the initiative and identify and adopt a further 10 principles to govern the risk reviews they must commission.

David Carson, first author of Professional Risk and Working with People (2007) and a member of the committee which produced the risk principles approved by ACPO.

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