“Pick Important Problems and Solve Them”
Malcolm Sparrow, a Harvard professor in the Kennedy School of Government and ex-British cop, has spent a decade or more popularizing this phrase and the approach to regulation that it summarizes. In his most recent book, The Character of Harms: Operational Challenges in Control, he looks closely at the difficulties of picking and solving regulatory harms or risks and has this to say:
“However simple that sounds, it turns out that organizing around carefully selected and important pieces of risk - rather than around traditional programmatic or functional tasks, or around core-high-volume operational processes – is extraordinarily difficult for agencies or institutions to do.”
Harms or risks, as defined by Sparrow can include international terrorism, hunger, war, child mortality, loss of environmental resources, crime of all kinds, etc., etc., etc. In Sparrow’s words, “much of the unfinished business for the human race consists of harms, threats, or risks of one kind or another, insufficiently controlled”.
Solving harms is a different kind of work from the routines practiced by most regulators and others in the risk management business. It even gets its own acronym, ROPE (Recognize, Organize, Perform, Explain) to distinguish it from the functional and process-based approaches normally practiced by regulators. Introducing the characteristics of his approach to solving harms, Sparrow describes it as “spot the knots, study them and unpick them one-by-one”. More prosaically, he describes the four important properties of the approach:
- Addresses specific, tightly defined concentrations of harm;
- Involves a prolonged period of analysis resulting the development of hypotheses about what the specific problem really is;
- Results in interventions that are qualitatively new, not merely a mix of existing functions and methods; and
- Projects involve multiple agencies and organizations working in collaboration because the problems frequently straddle jurisdictional and pragmatic boundaries.
Sparrow advocates a pragmatic, practical approach to regulation, urging regulators (and readers) to understand the problems facing them before worrying about which tools, tactics or times to intervene and to avoid ideological preferences. He goes further, suggesting that practitioners ....
“respect the natural shape and size of the harm itself. Fashion your response around its structure, rather than forcing the harm into your structure. Use a control structure which mirrors the structure of the harm itself.”
And in his opinion the people chosen to carry out this type of work matter (they always matter, but it’s nice to read an author that understands that).
“The analysis and planning stages favour creative, analytic-types; not champions of particular functions with entrenched views; not necessarily senior staff or authority figures; rather those who work well in lateral teams, far away from their normal supervisor, the only one-of-their-kind in a diverse group; people not wed to any one particular set of tactics but willing to engage in brain-storming, working and re-working strange new ideas until they eventually morph into something feasible, legal, publicly acceptable and (hopefully) brilliantly effective.”
In short, pragmatic, practical people.
It would take a book to adequately describe his approach and that is what Sparrow very ably provides. And it's divided into two sections: the first half provides the how-to, with sections such as “A different type of work”, “Defining the problems: setting the scale”, and “Puzzles of measurement”.
The second half of the book tackles special categories of risk such as invisible harms, catastrophic harms and conscious opponents. In each case providing insight into what’s different and how responses must be tempered to address the specifics of the particular type of harm.
Perhaps most importantly, is that the approach is not just for regulators. It can be applied equally well to the management of risk by other organizations, corporations, NGO's ..... wherever individuals are struggling to manage risks associated with the potential harms of our day.
It’s a very good read if you are interested in effective regulation and the art of risk management.