A new approach to risk evaluation and management: risk-based, precaution-based, and discourse-based strategies

Risk Anal. 2002 Dec;22(6):1071-94. doi: 10.1111/1539-6924.00274.


Our concept of nine risk evaluation criteria, six risk classes, a decision tree, and three management categories was developed to improve the effectiveness, efficiency, and political feasibility of risk management procedures. The main task of risk evaluation and management is to develop adequate tools for dealing with the problems of complexity, uncertainty. and ambiguity. Based on the characteristics of different risk types and these three major problems, we distinguished three types of management--risk-based, precaution-based, and discourse-based strategies. The risk-based strategy--is the common solution to risk problems. Once the probabilities and their corresponding damage potentials are calculated, risk managers are required to set priorities according to the severity of the risk, which may be operationalized as a linear combination of damage and probability or as a weighted combination thereof. Within our new risk classification, the two central components have been augmented with other physical and social criteria that still demand risk-based strategies as long as uncertainty is low and ambiguity absent. Risk-based strategies are best solutions to problems of complexity and some components of uncertainty, for example, variation among individuals. If the two most important risk criteria, probability of occurrence and extent of damage, are relatively well known and little uncertainty is left, the traditional risk-based approach seems reasonable. If uncertainty plays a large role, in particular, indeterminacy or lack of knowledge, the risk-based approach becomes counterproductive. Judging the relative severity of risks on the basis of uncertain parameters does not make much sense. Under these circumstances, management strategies belonging to the precautionary management style are required. The precautionary approach has been the basis for much of the European environmental and health protection legislation and regulation. Our own approach to risk management has been guided by the proposition that any conceptualization of the precautionary principle should be (1) in line with established methods of scientific risk assessments, (2) consistent and discriminatory (avoiding arbitrary results) when it comes to prioritization, and (3) at the same time, specific with respect to precautionary measures, such as ALARA or BACT, or the strategy of containing risks in time and space. This suggestion does, however, entail a major problem: looking only to the uncertainties does not provide risk managers with a clue about where to set priorities for risk reduction. Risks vary in their degree of remaining uncertainties. How can one judge the severity of a situation when the potential damage and its probability are unknown or contested? In this dilemma, we advise risk managers to use additional criteria of hazardousness, such as "ubiquity versibility," and "pervasiveness over time," as proxies for judging severity. Our approach also distinguishes clearly between uncertainty and ambiguity. Uncertainty refers to a situation of being unclear about factual statements; ambiguity to a situation of contested views about the desirability or severity of a given hazard. Uncertainty can be resolved in principle by more cognitive advances (with the exception of indeterminacy). ambiguity only by discourse. Discursive procedures include legal deliberations as well as novel participatory approaches. In addition, discursive methods of planning and conflict resolution can be used. If ambiguities are associated with a risk problem, it is not enough to demonstrate that risk regulators are open to public concerns and address the issues that many people wish them to take care ot The process of risk evaluation itself needs to be open to public input and new forms of deliberation. We have recommended a tested set of deliberative processes that are, at least in principle, capable of resolving ambiguities in risk debates (for a review, see Renn, Webler, & Wiedemaun. 1995). Deliberative processes are needed, however, for ail three types of management. Risk-based management relies on epistemiological, uncertainty-based management on reflective, and discourse-based management on participatory discourse forms. These three types of discourse could be labeled as an analytic-deliberative procedure for risk evaluation and management. We see the advantage of a deliberative style of regulation and management in a dynamic balance between procedure and outcome. Procedure should not have priority over the outcome; outcome should not have priority over the procedure. An intelligent combination of both can elaborate the required prerequisites of democratic deliberation and its substantial outcomes to enhance the legitimacy of political decisions (Guttman & Thompson, 1996; Bohman, 1997. 1998).