Safety as a goal: five principles of public policy responses to risks

Peter Holdorf

Whether responding to a global pandemic or hazardous chemicals, the fundamental policy goal is essentially the same: maximise safety/minimise risks.

This policy goal may sound simple, but it is far from straightforward how to maximise safety. Something the wide array of different policies around the world in response to Covid-19 have shown.

So, here are a few principles which I have found to help my understanding of public policy responses to risks from working with EU chemicals policy.

  1. Safety is both a subjective and an objective issue

Many conflicts about safety come from different visions of what it means and hence the best policy responses, if any.

Safety is seen by some as a matter of objective circumstances. What is the likelihood of something bad happening and what are the potential harms? Risk analysis is then applied to calculate whether there are any ‘real’ safety issues based on known and unknowns about an event occurring and its impacts.

On the other hand, safety is often about the subjective feelings of individuals: fears and imagination about the personal impacts of (potential) events. Risks don’t become a safety issue until it is something people experience as a present worry or as a real possibility. Some risks become a safety issue whereas others are left invisible.

  1. If public concern is high, stronger policy responses are likely – even for minor risks

Politicians have strong incentives to use far-reaching measures once a risk, no matter how unlikely, is perceived as an important safety concern in the wider public – especially if the potential harms are uncertain or expected to be significant.

In such cases, if a policymaker stops to wait for all questions and uncertainties to be resolved, it can easily be perceived as ‘doing nothing’ or not taking the perceived problem seriously. On the contrary, coming down hard on such issues is often rewarded by being seen as proactive and resolute.

  1. Reassurance is a measure of effective policy responses to risks

Politicians have different ways of creating security: prevention, mitigation and/or reassurance.

Policies can be designed to prevent something bad from happening (minimise risks) or mitigate impacts as much as possible (if the event happens anyway). In both cases, good policies have measurable effects.

But as safety is often more about the feelings of people than ‘actual’ risks, meeting the goal of generating safety is often about alleviating concerns more than anything else.

This explains why (sometimes) ineffective policies are not only put in place but also maintained even in the absence of significant risks. Their reassurance effect is more important.

  1. The policy response to a specific risk is influenced by its wider context

It may not come as a surprise. Policymakers have little time (and sometimes appetite) to understand all the nuances and uncertainties of an issue. This can, in particular, be prominent when dealing with issues of risk and safety where the consequences of failing to take action can be significant.

Policymakers will look at the wider context. What broader category does the issues fit within? This simplifies and removes complexity – is the broader category good or bad? If the issue falls within the ‘bad’ category, the ‘real’ risks are not so important.

It highlights how some risks are more acceptable than others – does it go in the good or the bad category?

  1. Self-imposed risks are less likely to trigger policy responses

Whether a risk is self-imposed, or at least perceived as such, is an important mediating factor for policy responses.

Risks are more likely to be tolerated if these are the result of a deliberate action than if these are imposed. The latter is more likely to be subject to policy action even if the objective risk is similar.

Second-hand smoke is an obvious example.

It points to a broader fact. The nature of risks matter. Is a risk familiar or is it new? Is the risk seen as unavoidable? Does the risk disproportionately impact certain vulnerable groups?

Political decisions on policy responses are influenced by these and many other situational factors.