Johan Debyser: an interview

Johan Debyser is Cabinet governor of West Flanders. An interview on 9 juli 2009 by Marieke de Kort & Karl Vanderplaetse

What is Risk Management?
Often, risk management is perceived as emergency planning and fighting disasters. One of the greatest risks facing society at this moment is, of course, the financial crisis. However, we are also facing natural disasters such as earthquakes and flooding. Global warming is causing sea levels to rise thus creating an increased risk of flooding and breaches of coastal defences . Water levels can  rise, but the water cannot  go  anywhere due to our dikes. Sea levels are also rising, therefore we should make the dikes even higher, which will make it impossible for the inland water to get out.
Generally risk management is  about taking precautions to  understand risks can occur, to make sure you calculate those risks and do anything possible to mitigate them. Another significant risk at this moment is  pandemic flu. For example more victims fell to the Spanish flu outbreak early in the twentieth century  than during the First World War. To limit the number of victims it is necessary to take precautions,  such as  vaccination. But even with these precautions, there is a chance that one third of the population will become ill. When this happens the other two thirds of the population will have to ‘cover’ for them. This means less police, less fire fighters, less doctors and nurses…
It is important to prioritise, to choose what is important. We plan ahead and make our priorities clear before the pandemic is at its worst. We call this our Business Continuity Plan. Local governments play a very important role in these decisions. Only they can decide what is important at a micro level.

The art of risk management
The most important thing in risk management is to be prepared. In Belgium we work with the security chain. Pro-action, prevention, preparation, risk control and care. In pro-action, there will be no risk. Pro-action means that you make sure the risk will not occur. For example: When the greatest risk in your house is falling down the flight of stairs, you will remove the stairs and with that remove the risk. Pro-active thinking forces you to think about the risks, during the planning phase. You can predict what is going to be a risk and make sure the risk is excluded.

For example: if the dike breaks, within a few hours a whole area will be flooded. Knowing this, dictates which precautions you should take. In history they just didn’t build houses in areas that could flood. We should try to learn from that and try to be more pro-active.

The complexity of risks

The complexity of risks has increased over the last decade. It is a vulnerability paradox. If you compare our society with 15 years ago, we are now much better prepared than before. But we are also far more dependent on our facilities. There is a huge increase in technological complexity which increases the complexity of our risks, but on the other hand, this technology also helps us in controlling our risks. In the case of a failure  in technology, a high number of our processes will be down. Take for example the internet; if the internet is down, most of our communication is blocked. If electricity is down for an hour, we are in a huge panic. We are largely dependent on technology!

We are more and more aware of all the risks around us. The media plays a big part in this. When a risk occurs the media is all over it. The government is expected to make all the risks disappear. But we can not do this. We do everything we can, but we also don’t have all the answers and solutions.

There are four important things regarding Risk Management. You should:

  • – Be prepared
  • – Develop procedures
  • – Be flexible with these procedures
  • – Be pragmatic.

Preparation is the first step, just to think about reacting to an incidents. Make a structure plan, with the headlines in it, some kind of procedure.  Make sure that when the incident occurs you still have time to make decisions at that moment. Be flexible at decision time. It is impossible to plan ahead for disasters, you can never foresee what is going to happen.

You cannot plan risks. There is always the possibility that a risk  will occur; the world is an unpredictable place. You can plan ahead to fight the risks, but you can not plan the risks themselves.