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Many Canadians might see the COVID lockdown as the biggest exercise in risk management our government has ever conducted. And some, weighing the enormous cost, might say it’s also our most risk-averse.
But it ain’t necessarily so. Most of us have neither the scientific capacity to measure the risk to human lives under various “lockdown” scenarios, nor a personal desire to weigh those risks against the economic and human costs of shutting things down. We seem largely willing to leave that to the experts and glad that governments have mostly relied on their advice.
But the very fact that there’s been a careful calculus under multiple scenarios means this isn’t a case of simple risk aversion. And in that sense it’s a model for a better, risk-smart approach for governments in a post-COVID world.
Most governments believe they already weigh risks carefully, while most observers believe governments (including public servants) are highly risk averse. But government risk management is arguably driven more by culture than by calculus. Certain risks loom large on the radar screen and are over-managed (hint, those for which officials might be blamed), while some existential risks (like long-term obsolescence) can go largely unnoticed. In general, risks of “commission” are avoided while risks of “omission” get missed, and the status quo seems a lot less risky than it really is.
Oversight and control systems are particular candidates for risk-smart overhauls. If a renewed, nimbler (and possibly smaller) public service emerges from the COVID crisis, it will need to put a robust risk lens on almost everything it does.
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