The Development of Guidance for Civil Servants on Risk

The Development of Guidance for Civil Servants on Risk

PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with the University of Stavanger’s Professor Frederic Bouder to discuss his work on the ESRC-funded Development of Guidance for Civil Servants on Risk.

Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. Would you mind getting started by telling me a little bit about your research background, and how you ended up working on The Development of Guidance for Civil Servants on Risk?

Professor Bouder: I am a Professor of Risk Management at the University of Stavanger in Norway, but at the start of my career, I was an administrator at the OECD. That exposed me to the practical concerns facing policymakers dealing with complex situations, including pandemics. That experience developed my interest in the interface between risk communication and policy, which drove me to do a PhD at King’s College London. At King’s, I explored the question ‘what is a tolerable level of risk?’ At the time, I was interested in how we handle situations such as granting market access to medicines, combatting public reluctance to get vaccines, etc. I have done several projects collaborating with governments, and the work I did on The Development of Guidance for Civil Servants on Risk focused on providing advice on to UK civil servants on risk communication. That project was funded by the ESRC and was conducted in partnership with GO Science and a precursor to BEIS, which at that point was called the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

What did the Development of Guidance for Civil Servants on Risk project entail?

At the time, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills was concerned with having several documents and guidelines concerning risk and communication which no one seemed to be paying attention to. One of the things we quickly learned was that there is a lot of literature going around government which stems from consulting cycles. A lot of it looks great, but the quality of the content is a mixed bag. Some of these documents are not always backed by a lot of evidence. So, I conceived of this project as a way to design an instrument that would be more effective at talking to civil servants while encouraging them to take science and evidence-based approaches.

The project involved a network of scientists, including leading scholars at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Stuttgart, and King’s College London, who worked together to design what we call a survivor’s guide. If you are a civil servant who has a crisis coming your way, the survivor’s guide is designed to help you figure out how to deal with the crisis and move things forward. Throughout the writing process, we had workshops and roundtables with civil servants to understand their needs and get their feedback. While it is hard to assess the tangible impact of the document, I’ve had several people from government reach out to me over the years with follow-up questions about how the document applies to specific problems they are facing, which I see as a good sign that people still find it a useful tool.

Can you tell me a bit more about some of the projects you have worked on since finishing your work on the Development of Guidance for Civil Servants on Risk?

After finishing my work on the civil servants’ survival guide, I was hired by the University of Maastricht, where I continued my work on risk communication in crises. This included work on an Open Research project which did a comparative analysis of the regulation of risk in policy areas including health and safety, healthcare, crime prevention, education, and food safety.

While at the University of Maastricht, I also did a lot of work on issues of transparency in government in pharmaceuticals and health, much of which was done in collaboration with my former PhD supervisor. We felt that while people perceive a need for transparency and information disclosure in these sectors, the government’s focus on disclosing a lot of information has resulted in people having access to piles of documents they can do very little with. For example, a regulatory agency might decide to release thousands of pages of technical, medical information from clinical trials. How does that empower the public to make good decisions? It is much more likely that industry competitors, and maybe some people in academia, will be interested in or able to use that data.  You cannot expect ordinary people to have the time or background to parse through those pages and use them to make informed decisions. What instead can happen is that if companies or regulatory agencies produce the wrong type of information, is that you can create a contested, complicated environment in which misconceptions and fears flourish. Effective risk communication is the difference between public trust, versus the public becoming worried about vaccines because of what they have seen in a publication like the Daily Mail.  

A few years ago, I received funding for a 6-8-year project on genetic risk information from the international collaborations stream of the Swedish social sciences funding body. From my current position at the University of Stavanger, I’m working with a team which is exploring what information about genetics people want, people’s expectations when they do online DNA tests, and how automated algorithms used for predictive diagnosis share information with patients/clients.

I have also recently finished up a project on risk education and children’s understanding of risk, which was conducted based on small-scale surveys in the UK and Canada. We are hoping to publish that research in the near future, but right now a lot of my time is being spent on examining the communication of uncertainty in the context of covid-19.

What has your work in response to the covid-19 pandemic entailed?

We have received a two-year grant for a project funded by the Norwegian Research Foundation which is examining various aspects of Covid-19 management in Norway, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, and the UK. We are examining institutions, policies, and the behavioral aspects of how people have understood and responded to the guidance given to them. There have been both quantitative and qualitative elements of this work, and the project has been interdisciplinary and inter-sectoral. For example, we are working with an anthropologist who specializes in kinship, developing relationships with local hospitals and drug regulators, and exploring various aspects of communication and vaccination.

Are there any major challenges or themes which have reoccurred throughout your years working on risk communication?

Unfortunately, because the field of communications is often perceived as more of an art than a science, many people with experience in communications or dealing with the public don’t realize that they have more to learn about things you should or should not do when communicating risk. We need to do more to challenge assumptions in risk communication, and to understand how government works and what government’s needs are. The question of how to mainstream effective risk communication in government practices continues to be a major challenge – and it is certainly one which underpins a lot of my work.

Based on your experience throughout your career thus far, what would be your key message for policymakers seeking to engage in effective risk communication?

One key message I would have is that it is important for governments to have a broad base of diverse networks and evidence sources which they can draw upon. I think part of the problem for many governments in the current pandemic is that it is so difficult to suddenly create capacity – which is how we have ended up with governments running around like headless chickens asking ‘Who could inform us? Who should we go to?’. Countries which have Chief Scientific Advisors and National Academies of Sciences that provide regular inputs into policymaking processes have an advantage here – they have communities they can draw upon easily. As you draw upon the evidence base, governments also need to ensure they are drawing on a sufficiently large evidence base and looking at diverse forms of evidence rather than becoming sole reliant on say, mathematical modelling.

Another message is that it is very important to acknowledge public perspectives on risk and to use that as your starting point. There are a lot of expectations in government about how people are supposed to behave, but those expectations often are not backed by a lot of evidence. So, you need to do your homework, drawing on communications research and risk perception research, to develop an evidence-informed starting point for thinking about public perceptions and behavior. We also know from the history of research in these fields, particularly mental models, that punitive policy approaches do not work if you want to unite people.

My final message is that sometimes, in order to get you message across, you need to work first on gaining trust. If trust is low, people are much less likely to follow any advice you give them. Meanwhile, in places like Scandinavia where trust in government is much higher, policymakers have easy ways of providing advice to the public, because the public will listen. If you are in a country where there are low levels of trust, policymakers will need to work through different mechanisms, such as trusted third parties, such as independent scientists. For example, David Attenborough’s work on global warming is something that people can relate to, and it’s probably more impactful than hearing from a government official.