The Use of Risk Governance Principles in Practice: Lessons from a Dutch Public Institute for Risk Research and Assessment

L. Hanssen*, J. Devilee, M. Hermans, M. Van Zijverden, M. Van Asselt

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


I. Introduction: risk governance principles The technical, natural science-based approach, with a focus on the likelihood of possible consequences and damage potential, has been adapted to deal with risks, such as genetically modified organisms, or newly synthesised materials, which cannot be managed merely by existing technocratic procedures. For a number of years already, professional risk assessment and management communities have advocated for a change, claiming that major controversies, crises and scandals around food, environmental health and technological innovations have necessitated a reshaping of traditional risk regulation towards a more integrative risk governance. 1 In this approach risk experts, policy-makers, stakeholders and civil society organisations (CSOs) are working together towards identifying risks, generating and evaluating options, and coming to a strategy. This is reflected, for example, in the analytic-deliberative approach embodied in the modified IRGC Risk Governance Framework 2 that includes concern assessment in parallel with the more conventional risk assessment. Decision-makers need to understand the nature and strengths of societal concerns and consider them alongside more technical recommendations for action. The ideas by the IRGC have a social science basis, but more or less at the same time in the natural science oriented risk assessment community comparable ideas and concepts have been developed. From the 1990s onwards, the US-based National Research Council (NRC) published several reports on how risk assessments should remain credible and authoritative in times of scientific uncertainty and strong competing interests. 3 In 2005, the “European” International Risk Governance Council published their white paper, which addressed similar challenges. In this article we focus on the IRGC risk governance framework. 4 Despite the popularity of risk governance frameworks amongst scholars and policy-makers, there has been little research done that shows how major institutes for risk research and assessment try to implement the underlying risk governance principles. This is surprising, since such institutes are necessary actors in this process. New technologies show opportunities, but also raise a number of risk-related social, economic and political issues. The governance of these risks is a challenge: the stakeholders and public involved hold vested positions; values are at stake; and the science is complex, uncertain or even incomplete. Yet, the expectations of policy-makers that institutes for risk research and assessment can adequately deal with these risks are often high. On the one hand, it is acknowledged that these risks can be complex, uncertain or ambiguous and need approaches in line with risk governance principles; on the other hand these institutes are also expected to deliver clear and unambiguous answers. 5 Operating within this precarious field of tension, the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) has become an important actor in the implementation of risk governance principles in the Netherlands. The institute has an open attitude towards risk governance principles and new approaches, and has been at the forefront in supporting the Dutch government in developing its national risk governance strategy. 6 Moreover, RIVM has its own strategic research budget, from which projects can be funded in which risk researchers and staff members can experiment in ways to translate risk governance principles into practice. In this article, we want to shed more light on the process of applying risk governance principles in an institutional setting like the RIVM. The importance of the institutional context has already been addressed by Renn and Walker, 7 but only in conceptual terms. Boholm, Corvellec, and Karlsson 8 have given a more descriptive perspective on day-to-day risk governance in institutional settings. In a similar way, we investigate actual dealings with risk issues as they unfold in the RIVM context.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)632-640
Number of pages9
JournalEuropean Journal of Risk Regulation
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2018

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