Last week while trying to get some information on a recent book by Malcolm Sparrow, I came across an interview with the man himself. I was trying to make up my mind about ordering his book, The Character of Harms, and had hoped to find enough information to make a decision. However, the interview was interesting in its own right and seemed worthy of a quick post.
I first came across Sparrow, a researcher at Harvard and ex-British cop, in an earlier book entitled The Regulatory Craft. As a consultant that focuses on regulatory management, I am always looking for good writing on the subject and Sparrow's book was one of the best I've come across in recent years. (Very quickly, his thesis in The Regulatory Craft was that regulators should "pick important problems and solve them" as part of a focus of focusing on the delivery of obligations. It strikes a counterpoint to the many prescriptions for regulatory reform that focus, in his view wrongly, on customer service, process improvement, etc.)
In his interview, (and I suspect in his most recent book) Sparrow again focuses on the careful identification and solving of regulatory and other risk related problems, extending the direction advocated in The Regulatory Craft. In discussing this approach, he hits on three key themes, including:
- Catastrophic risks, much in the news these days, lack the frequent, low-level events that would normally provide a basis for training, practice and prevention. Put another way, there are too few events to support a a feedback loop. To successfully manage catastrophic risks then, regulators and others must shift their focus to near-misses and precursor events.
- Regulators should focus on spotting emerging problems and suppressing them quickly before they can do much harm - "that doesn't mean waiting for three years for new legislation, but using available tools and enlisting relevant partners and getting into it quickly, devising a solution ..."
- This approach is not just for regulators, it applies equally well to corporate risk management and in fact any forum in which managers are struggling to manage risks relating to potential harms.
I am a strong advocate of designing and building proactive management systems to address the risks that affect companies and regulators. However, I do believe that the practical, evidence-based approach advocated by Sparrow makes sense for addressing those problems that inevitably squeeze through even the best management systems. So I recommend reading the interview for yourself - its short and won't take you long. I recommend Sparrow's books even more.
Incidentally, I did buy The Character of Harms and with 30 minutes invested in reading thus far, it looks like it will be good.