Dealing with Risk

This publication is an attempt to spell out some of the difficulties flowing from the prevailing social attitudes towards risk acceptance and the effect the difficulties have on professional practice. It is primarily directed to practising professionals, and is intended to encourage and assist them to develop a broad community discussion about one of the most critical issues of our time. That is the yawning gap between the expectations which communities have of systems and the abilities of those systems to deliver.

The puplication is based on the theme that the task of managing expectations is central to the achievement of improvement in the risk acceptance environment, and it draws to the attention of professionals the pressing need they have to understand that societies and technologists construct their attitudes to risk acceptance differently; they march to different drummers, and neither seems to hear the other’s drums.

It is also apparent that the difficulties related to risk acceptance with which modem societies are grappling affect almost all those who provide services in an attempt to satisfy community demands. In a very real sense, identified by Arthur Koestler in the mid-fifties, humans are struggling to reconcile the power available to them with their value systems – which Koestler refers to as spiritual insight, awareness, charity and related values. The issues are global, and humans the world over are trying to come to terms with them.

What we need is a calm and reasoned debate which faces the issues squarely. It should be a debate conducted in the broadest possible terms and with a minimum of random noise.

The Australian Council of Professions hopes that its member associations and their members will join it in an attempt to stimulate such a debate; this publication is a potential catalyst. You, as an individual professional, can use it to assist the process.

Central to it must be the realisation that no action can be absolutely safe and nothing can be absolutely certain, least of all the future; and that efforts to improve safety cost money, cost time, cost people and even (if robots are the way to safety) cost jobs.

There is a common core to the liability issues. This publication seeks to identify that core, and make it available as a reference and support for discussions set in areas of specialisation. Thus such discussions may be properly seen as particular cases of a general proposition, and avoid the dilemmas associated with charges of special pleading.

The document had its genesis in publications of The Institution of Engineers (Engineers Australia) who I thank for permission to adapt the document to serve a more general purpose. In doing so, I gratefully acknowledge the research and authorship contribution of Dr. Peter Miller.

The pamphlet suggests a framework within which professional practitioners should consider risk, and examines a number of areas of special interest:

  • The Issues which are important to the ability of practitioners to deal with risk are canvassed. The dominant issue is the need to understand the gap between the expectation which demanders have of providers and the ability of providers to deliver. It is important to found our actions in Codes of Ethics, but there are difficulties in a complex society with the concept of the common good. This flows from the nature of the arrangements under which the professions practise. Practitioners will need to take part in much wider discussions than they have in the past, and be prepared to enter the wider debate about policies for societies.
  • The Social Construction of Risk is a new field of study which examines the way societies at large consider risk. It is clear that individual and collective decisions about the acceptance of risk consider both objective and subjective inputs, and in most cases the subjective dominates. It is important that practitioners should not only become familiar with the way societies and individuals construct concepts of risk, but also enter into the activity directly and influence the outcomes.
  • The Technological Construction of Risk traces the way professional practitioners consider risk and construct risk models. As part of this process the concepts of technology and design are examined and the pervasiveness of the concepts discussed.
    Although the technological construction of risk appears to be objective, and is usually interpreted by society in that way, its objectivity is flawed by the inherent inadequacy of technological models; and some practitioners who elevate their models to infallibility seem to lack confidence in the subjective power of experience and judgement, when they should realise that both are inherent and dominant in professional practice and should be used with pride.

It seems to the community that practitioners command models which are both objective and absolutely predictive, but in reality the ability of individual technological models to predict outcomes is very limited. The models, however, are very useful to assist the formation of judgements:

  • When practitioners try to explain risk in technological terms, such as “the risk associated with this medical procedure is 1 in 14,000” or “the annual probability of a failure is 1 in 1000” or “this land will be flooded by a 1 in 100 year flood“, few people understand and become more confused. Practitioners must rethink their approach to risk acceptance, and the paper examines how to begin that process.
  • The Human-Technology Interface is where most accidents occur. Many in the community who have to deal with post-accident trauma believe that professional practitioners have not been sufficiently interested in this interface, particularly in the physical, physiological and psychological implications; and such people are beginning to see this lack of interest by practitioners as negligent. A mismanaged conveyance or a mistaken diagnosis is an accident as potentially devastating as a building collapse or a mechanical failure, as is a faulty audit or an erroneous survey. The issue is pervasive to all professions. Practitioners must address this question, and some suggestions are canvassed.
  • Professional practitioners need to change their image in some respects because their present image does not properly convey the uncertainties which attend upon their work.
  • We need to understand the technological method properly, and there are many signs which indicate that we have seconded judgement and are giving primacy to mathematical and other models, despite their limitations.
  • We need to understand perceptions of risk particularly the enormous range of risks which societies accept, or appear to accept, and the role which standards play in this process.
  • We need to understand the legal process, particularly that it is a technological system which is also fallible.
  • We need to manage expectations, because the gap between the expectations people have of systems and the ability of those systems to deliver is unrealistic and misunderstanding of the gap is already counterproductive.
    Managing expectations can be a process by which we might improve understandings of the acceptance of risk; not only the expectations which the community has of practitioners, but also the expectations which surround the practice and organisation of the professions themselves. The current trend to criminalise behaviour surrounding accidents and procurement adds a new imperative. A structure for attempting this process is suggested, by way of a six-point plan.

Recognition of Overseas Professional Qualifications

The Australian Council of Professions’ policy on the recognition of overseas professional qualifications is as follows:

  • each profession has the sole responsibility for setting and maintaining its standards within Australia;
  • each profession should recognise the qualifications of an overseas trained professional only if that person is as competent to perform in the profession as a person trained in Australia;
  • each profession has the sole responsibility for assessing qualifications gained overseas, together with other relevant factors, in order to determine whether an immigrant or potential immigrant is to be granted professional status within Australia;
  • professions may defer recognition of an overseas qualification which is otherwise acceptable until the person concerned has a sufficient command of English for effective practice in Australia;
  • professional recognition should be given to all who meet recognition requirements;
  • professions should apply their tests based on the professional status, standing and competence of a person rather than on the route taken by that person to achieve this standing; and
  • professions should keep under review their procedures of assessment of qualifications gained overseas and the basis on which assessments are made.

The Australian Council of Professions:

  • encourages the National Office of Overseas Skills Recognition in its publication of the “Compendium of Guidelines for Assessment of Overseas Qualifications 1990” and supports any expansion which may give more specific guidance in respect of particular professions: and
  • requests the National Office of Overseas Skills Recognition to continue its support of professions in their obtaining of information about overseas qualifications and to continue to provide financial and other assistance where appropriate.

Adopted at the General Meeting, 5 November 1990

Professional Self-Regulation

The Australian Council of Professions endorses the proposal by the NSW Government that the limitations of liability on time and money provided under the legislation be available to the defendants of an action in which the “Professional of Record” in the matter is listed on an approved register.

The NSW Government has defined a “Professional of Record” as the professional who authorised the documents or actions related to the matter in contention in an action within the ambit of the legislation. The Australian Council of Professions endorses the incorporation of this definition in the legislative framework, in which an “Approved Register” is defined as one in which membership is voluntary and is limited to professionals who:

  • have defined minimum qualifications in both tertiary education and experience such that the holders can operate as professionals independently within their field of competence;
  • adhere to a Code of Ethics (the NSW Government’s special requirements for risk management and continuing professional development are an inherent part of ethical practice required by the Code); and
  • are covered by professional indemnity insurance, either directly or indirectly, to the level required by the legislation.

An “Approved Register” is also defined as one which provides for:

  • eligibility competently assessed using established processes against well-defined criteria for tertiary education standards, professional experience and continuing professional development;
  • access by the public to a register of current members and ability to lodge complaints;
  • disciplinary action for breaches of the Code of Ethics;
  • the right of appeal by professionals judged ineligible for entry to the scheme or judged liable for disciplinary action;
  • access to a mediator or arbitrator, nominated by the President of the Professional Association, to assist in the resolution of disputes; and
  • a scheme to be run by a “Registration Board” administered by the Professional Association and able to draw on the full range of Professional Association experience and expertise.

The Australian Council of Professions further proposes that the following aspects be included in the processes and documentation for a register to be submitted for approval under any legislation:

  • the definition of standards of qualification (both academic and experience) for admission to the register;
  • processes for accreditation of educational programs (both Australian and overseas) which satisfy the academic qualification requirement;
  • processes for assessment of applicants’ conformance to the qualification requirement;
  • a process for appeal by applicants who have been judged ineligible for entry to the register;
  • a definition of standards to be achieved in continuing professional development;
  • processes for assessing conformance of persons on the register to the professional development standards (quality and quantity factors);
  • a defined Code of Ethics;
  • defined requirements for professional indemnity insurance;
  • a process for issuing of annual practising certificates on payment of the annual fee;
  • disciplinary processes for breaches of conditions of register;
  • a process for appeal by persons subject to disciplinary actions;
  • processes for mediation and arbitration in disputes; and
  • administrative processes and fee structures for the register.

The Australian Council of Professions expects that, as a result of this practice, registration by the Professions would supersede other registration procedures so that costs on the individual professional would largely be offset.