Brief book review – Risk Management and Governance: Concepts, Guidelines and Applications

Terje Aven and Ortwin Renn, 2010, Springer, 276 pages.

Professor Terje Aven (University of Stavanger) and Professor Ortwin Renn (Potsdam Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies) are two leading risk theorists and (regulatory) researchers. They have been studying risk, risk governance and risk management for well over two decades. In Risk Management and Governance: Concepts, Guidelines and Applications they join forces and present key lessons from their work and that of others. While the book is now close to reaching its 10th anniversary, it is still among the best in the field for policymakers, practitioners and academics interested in a substantive introduction to the topic.

Contrary to many other books in the field, the authors do not rush to give their answer to how to govern or manage risk best. They rather begin with a discussion of why it is so difficult to come to a shared language and understanding of what risk is. Not only our background colours how we think about risks (technical experts, economists, psychologists, sociologists, etc.), but even our fundamental understanding of the world we observe and want to know does. That is, is risk an objective state of the world, or do risks only exist in human perceptions and experiences (i.e., the ontological status of risk)? Can risk be objectively measured, and if so how (i.e., the epistemological status of risk)?

Aven and Renn explain that it is essential to begin asking these questions in any situation of risk governance and risk management. Not doing so will likely result in inadequate approaches to address the risk, or approaches that lack legitimacy because they do not build on the different kinds of knowledge that people have about the risk. The strength of Aven and Renn’s work is that this discussion is brief and to the point. It is, however, a fundamental part of every risk governance and risk management intervention. To let the authors speak themselves

“Our analysis [of our work on risk and that of others] has shown that narrow risk concepts based on probabilistic risk assessments, which produce numerical probabilities derived from experiments, models, expert judgements, and/or scenario techniques, provide society only with a limited scope of what humans might value. The economic, psychological and social science perspectives on risk broaden the scope of undesirable effects, includes possibilities and likelihood, and expand the horizon of risk outcomes by referring to “socially constructed” or “socially mediated” realities” (p.235).

After this excellent discussion of the fundamentals of risk, risk governance and risk management, Aven and Renn take the reader step by step to what they (and many others) think is the best model for risk governance and management available: that of the International Risk Governance Council. This model breaks up the process of risk governance and management in four steps that all get detailed attention in the book; (1) pre-assessment and framing of risk, (2) risk appraisal, (3) risk characterization and evaluation, and (4) risk management. Risk communication is an essential part of each of these steps and is discussed to some depth in the book also:

“The crucial task of risk communication runs parallel to all phases of handling risk: it assures transparency, public oversight and mutual understanding of the risks and their governance” (p.238).

The book concludes with a chapter on stakeholder and public involvement in risk governance and risk management, and three hands-on case studies that are very well known to the authors. All in all, this book is a must-read for policymakers and regulatory practitioners engaged in the governance, management and regulation of risk.

Disclaimer

In these brief book reviews, I discuss classic and contemporary books that make up the canon of regulatory scholarship. I focus on their central guiding idea or core notions and aim to keep the reviews to around 500 words. Unfortunately, this implies I must sacrifice a considerable amount of detail from the books reviewed.

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