By Dr. Yoav J. Tenembaum Guest Writer July 12, 2010

Why is it that financial institutions and insurance companies have risk assessment specialists while Presidents and Prime Ministers do not?

Why is it that financial institutions and insurance companies have risk assessment specialists while Presidents and Prime Ministers do not?

The head of the executive branch should have a unit devoted exclusively to identifying and assessing possible risks entailed in policy proposals. In shaping foreign policy, a detailed, comprehensive and imaginative assessment of risks could mean the avoidance of crises, preventing their escalation once they occur, and even saving lives on some occasions.

To be sure, proposals presented to the head of the executive branch by his or her advisers tend to be discussed by looking at their pros and cons. However, this kind of decision-making process is not always followed; and when it is, it very much depends on the personalities, preferences and interests of the people involved whether risks will be thoroughly assessed.

It is tempting for advisers and ministers to bring well-wrapped solutions to the President or Prime Minister. Heads of the executive branch tend to like those who bring them solutions, rather than problems.

When ministers propose a certain policy, and advisers advance different options, in the realm of foreign policy, the President or Prime Minister needs people whose only task is to assess the risks entailed; individuals devoted exclusively to the analysis of the problems that might arise, looking at each proposal, at every idea, both from a micro and a macro perspective, with the aim of discerning the risks, revealing the problems and imagining the complications.

To be sure, there is a device employed in decision-making, particularly in the province of foreign policy, known as “the Devil’s Advocate.” According to it, a person in the entourage of advisers of the head of the executive branch is appointed to play the role of devil’s advocate. That individual must raise critical questions, point out drawbacks and discern faults regarding every proposal raised in discussions.

The problem with “the Devil’s Advocate” is that it is an ad hoc system, rather an integral part of the decision-making process. It is wholly dependent on the passing wishes of a President or Prime Minister. Also, the person chosen to play that role has no institutional backing. He or she has to rely on personal knowledge and intuition, rather than thorough analysis by a unit solely concentrated on assessing risks.

This is a proposal for the incorporation of a unit exclusively devoted to assessing risks. Every proposal presented to the head of the executive branch pertaining to or affecting foreign policy must be relayed to that unit, which, independent of any other discussions being held on the subject, would be expected to assess the entailed risks.

That unit would consider any problem that might emerge out of every policy option raised. Its task would be to point out problems, not to offer solutions. It would analyze the risks believed to be involved at both the micro (i.e., the tactical, operational aspects) and macro levels (i.e., the broader strategic, diplomatic dimensions).

The risk assessments produced by this unit would be presented to the President or Prime Minister for consideration and discussion with his or her ministers and advisers.

Certainly, the addition of this Risk Assessment Unit might hinder the decision-making process, rendering it somewhat more cumbersome and slower. However, the cost of not having such a unit is greater than the aforementioned burden. The repercussions of not having such a unit as an integral part of the decision-making process could make the shortfalls of its existence insignificant by comparison.

To be effective, the Risk Assessment Unit must be separated from every other department dealing, either directly or indirectly, with the shaping of foreign policy. It must maintain its administrative autonomy and its political independence. On the other hand, it must be clear to all concerned that it has the full backing of the President or Prime Minister. This could be done by placing it in the office of the head of the executive branch. This would make sense also as this unit would deal with the assessment of risks regarding proposals that reach, or emanate from, the President or Prime Minister’s office. The Risk Assessment Unit should be seen as a permanent feature of the government.

The Risk Assessment Unit should be relatively small. Presided by the Head of the Risk Assessment Unit, the individuals working in it should not come from a single professional background. There may well be experts in foreign policy decision-making, diplomatic history, war studies, communication, statistics, mathematics, philosophy, literature and other fields. The aim would be to think both concretely and imaginatively, to grasp the tiny detail and to delineate the larger picture.

Ultimately, it is the executive who would have to decide, with the help of his or her senior ministers and advisers, what course of action to adopt and what to eschew. This would be done, however, only after the possible risks have been indicated and analyzed by a group of people whose sole task would be to discern the problems entailed in each proposal and to discuss every option.

Dr. Tenembaum received his doctorate in Modern History from Oxford University. He has written several articles on foreign policy, diplomacy, diplomatic history and philosophy for various journals, magazines and newspapers in different countries. He currently lectures for the Diplomacy Program at Tel Aviv University.

The photo in this article is being used under Creative Commons licensing. The original source can be found here.