Magic Wand

I have been proposing a community risk management process (CRM) for Croton for some time now, and recently met with a village official. At one point in our conversation I heard, “If I had a magic wand…” I realized that this expression accomplishes something besides conveying sympathy and regret. It gently puts an end to that part of the conversation, as if to say, “It’s not only difficult to do what you want, but it would take magic. Nothing less.” This expression is relatively common, but for me, it raised a question: Why does risk management – comparing gains and losses in considering proposals – elicit this kind of response?

There are local governments practicing some version of CRM: the City of San Jose has a “Community Risk Reduction Plan,” Norfolk, VA has a Risk Management Division, Alameda County, CA has an Office of Risk Management. Risk management can be found in many domains, from fire prevention and water services, to construction, insurance and finance practices, even colleges and universities. In local government, the CRM process would be practiced by a group consisting of the Trustees and representatives from all departments.

Here’s where I think resistance to CRM may come from: The phrase “risk management” potentially carries with it an air of complexity that can intimidate. I know from my own career experience that people can dislike and distrust standards, assuming that meeting them will involve more work that is not worth the benefits. And when a standard process is used to help keep discussions on track, individuals can think their opinions won’t matter as much, that their expertise will somehow be discounted.

My answer to these concerns is that relying on a CRM process actually helps to ensure that the knowledge and opinions of all stakeholders are included and considered by everyone involved in a decision. Risk management is the management of risk, not the management of those doing the work. Here’s what a best-practice standard might look like: An issue is presented to the village – examples could be concerns about pedestrian safety at a particular intersection, water treatment plans for the Croton River, or a solar array requiring tree removal. The first step is to clearly state the issue, to create a narrative.

The next step is most critical. A Trustee or department representative makes a list of all the things that define this issue. In the practice of risk management, these items are called “factors.” For the intersection, factors might be vehicle numbers and speed, crosswalk length, and visibility; water treatment could involve chemical toxicity and location relative to the village well; solar installation may involve the value of trees, value of electrical supply, and cost of maintenance. Of course each of these issues can have additional risk factors that will be considered.

Discussions by the CRM group may add to and will finalize this comprehensive list of factors and then determine which are the most significant. Finally, the group will address these factors, choosing actions that offer the greatest gain for the least loss. If this sounds like common sense, it is because something like this process is often followed, it’s just not endorsed, codified, and documented for all to see.

Do we really need such a practice? My answer is this: Do all critical issues addressed by local government receive a consistent and appropriate level of attention? Do some critical parts of an issue “fall between the cracks,” disappear, or appear to be ignored? Do government decisions include clear explanations, comparing one proposed fix to another while addressing the factors? Is documentation shared – and understood?

CRM helps to eliminate a scattershot approach to problem solving. It can help reduce the guesswork in deciding which of the many factors that might impact a decision are most critical and need to be addressed. CRM is simple: clearly state the issue; list all the critical parts, the risk factors; select those that appear most critical; compare what you can gain to what you can lose in addressing those factors (comparing expenditures too), summarize and communicate the process. That’s it. Clarity + transparency = good governance. The Trustees should consider this.