Friday, February 10, 2012

Avoiding Risk Rather than Achieving Values

I often bookmark or print out articles of interest, particularly on subjects which I might write about in the future. Here's an article from 2010 that I just read which makes some interesting points regarding regulation and the mindset it foments. (I don't agree with the whole article or all its conclusions, but I think there are valuable observations within it.) These paragraphs in particular help illustrate the error of shifting focus from achieving a positive to (at best) avoiding a negative:
Critics of Big Oil have criticised the companies for making unnecessary references to walruses. But it would be wrong to interpret the inclusion of walruses in an emergency-response plan for the Gulf of Mexico as just a stupid mistake. Rather, the documents refer to these animals because their real objective is to cultivate a public-friendly and environment-friendly image for the oil companies concerned. This is probably the most disturbing revelation to come out of the Washington hearings: that oil companies now devote far greater time and energy to managing how they appear in the eyes of the public than they do developing an effective emergency-response plan. So we learned that ExxonMobil’s emergency-response plan has 40 pages on dealing with the media but only nine on dealing with an oil spill. The plan seems more preoccupied with the science of drafting press releases than with the science of taking practical steps in an emergency.

It is important to point out that this performance of ‘protecting walruses’ and appearing concerned is not confined to a handful of oil companies. There is now a widespread culture of deception – often self-deception – in the West’s confused relationship with risk, and it is widely codified and institutionalised throughout society. As I have argued before, risk is no longer regarded as an opportunity but as a hazard to be avoided. As a result, risk-taking is now culturally stigmatised. People who take risks are frequently denounced for being, by definition, irresponsible. Parents who let their children roam in the outdoors are told off for ‘taking a risk with your child’. Scientists and businesses engaged in experimentation or technological innovation are often treated as pariahs for ‘putting communities at risk’. In contrast, risk aversion, the act of avoiding risk, is increasingly held up as a positive value.

[...]

Such rule-book focused management encourages the juridification of organisational life. Red tape and bureaucratisation thrive, and what really matters is not what someone achieves, but whether or not they adhered to the ‘right processes’. So when oil companies submit a fantasy emergency-response plan, they are ticking the right boxes, and that is really what counts in the contemporary climate of risk-performance. This focus on process is dangerous: it encourages a flight from judgment and a culture of defensiveness. Too often, people are discouraged from acting on the basis of their professional judgment in case they deviate from the predictable path set out by process. In such an environment, people adopt the kind of qualities normally associated with bureaucrats. They follow, or rather perform, the rules.

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