Analyse and rule? New book explains the rise of risk analysis and how it transforms policymaking and public administrations in Europe
Prism - selection of colours

By Regine Paul

Analytical models usually work at the backstage of public decision-making. They gained much publicity in 2020, however, when EU efforts to harmonize member states’ mobility restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic culminated in the weekly publication of Corona risk maps by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Drawing on complex risk-analytical models, the maps categorize the whole continent into weekly updated dots of red (high risk levels), orange (medium risk levels), and green (low risk levels). Their inventors hope that Corona risk maps will engender differentiated executive decision-making among member states, such as the non-restriction of free movement of persons travelling to or from green areas or strict containment measures in red areas.

My new book, Varieties of Risk Analysis in Public Administrations, unfolds against the triple background of

  1. intensifying efforts in doing and enacting risk analysis by public authorities – propelled by their increasing combination with automated decision-making systems in the public sector,
  2. scholarly controversies about what makes risk analysis attractive for administrative actors and how macro-institutional variation in public administrations shapes its appeals and uses, and,
  3. a lack of systematic theoretical and empirical insights about how actors’, potentially diverse and institutionally filtered, attractions to risk analysis interact in practice.

Efforts in doing and enacting risk analysis often count as ‘evidence-based’ to improve governance in the multi-level European polity (OECD 2010). At the same time, the heavy investment in risk analysis both by the EU Commission and its agencies in other policy domains in the past has highlighted that EU level actors may well seek to seize, through the calculative logic and language of risk, more influence over autonomous decision making in member states and their subnational authorities, either formally or informally (for example in migration and border control). Both accounts speak to wider and overlapping, but not yet systematically integrated, controversies about the role of analytical tools in policymaking and public administrations in the (relatively siloed) literatures on risk and regulation, evidence in policymaking, policy tools and policy instrumentation, but also EU multi-level governance and international bureaucracies.

On the one hand, those inspired by public choice theory argue that analytical tools, such as risk analysis or cost-benefit analysis, serve as ex-ante “option generation tools: they help policymakers rationalize decisions before taking them and thereby enable rational, less biased, and more coherent problem-solving. This reading often implies comparative postulations for diverse macro-institutional structures: polities with a strong and unified executive (for example with a powerful regulatory agency) seem to facilitate comprehensive turns to analysis in policymaking, whereas polities with more fragmented executive powers, typical of the EU and federalist states, are less likely to embrace analytical turns.

On the other hand, scholars of EU policymaking have long underlined the importance of shared analytical frameworks for enabling decision-making in complex multi-level settings, including in domains of soft governance. Analytical expansion has even strengthened and institutionalized the role of the Commission and European agencies in the first place. Historians of quantification argue that common analytical frameworks have oft-been a first and irrevocable step towards administrative and political integration. At the same time, organizational sociology highlights that investment in analytical models can – via the formation of “trust in numbers” – also protect actors against other actors’ critique and intrusion in their decision-making. In addition, constructivist accounts suggest that analytical models always entail, impose, and enact normative concepts about how to best govern a policy domain, both substantially and procedurally, and thereby confirm or transform positions of power. Overall, these readings propose that risk analysis is not a mere technocratic problem-solving instrument but a veritable governance tool with which to “rule” over the content and structures of policymaking. As both collective problem-solving and the navigation of actors’ respective roles in multi-level policymaking can be ‘played out’ through analysis, multi-level polities offer especially fertile conditions for comprehensive uses of risk analysis.

These variable accounts of why risk analysis attracts leave us with more questions than answers. How do different administrative actors’ perceptions of whether and why to pursue and use risk analysis interact in practice and morph over time? How does institutional variation shape such orientations and their interactions, and how are institutions themselves transformed through analytical turns? Are there distinct patterns in varieties of risk analysis in public administrations and how can we account for them? In Varieties of Risk Analysis in Public Administrations I systematize answers to these questions on a conceptual level, ground them more firmly with an account of how and why the inherent calculative logic of risk analysis connects so seamlessly to different politico-administrative agendas and practices, and offer a comparative empirical scrutiny of how well different approaches explain the rise of risk analysis in Europe. My book makes four distinct contributions.

First, I develop a novel typology of how bureaucratic actors make sense of and justify the adoption and use of analytical tools, based on a synthesizing review of various sub-disciplines of political sciences, public administration, and sociology. Analytical tools appeal in three ways: as instrumental problem-solving, as legitimacy-seeking, and power-seeking (I offer a shorter version of the conceptual framework here). While the former links to standard expectations from public choice theory (“risk analysis shows us the most cost-effective way of dealing with different risk levels, so let’s do it”), the latter two ideal types deal with ‘polity policies’ where administrative actors use risk analysis to confirm or rework underlying decision-making structures in the policy domain either by defending their mandates (“risk analysis proves we are acting rationally, so leave us to it”) or by carving out a more influential role for themselves (“risk analysis shows high risks should be managed centrally, so give me more power”). This is the realm of “analyse and rule”.

Second, the book contributes to a more nuanced understanding of the calculative logics of risk analysis as an in-built technical credential. I spell out how and why the ability of risk analysis to differentiate scenarios based on a calculation of likelihood and impact of a potential harm, and to represent such differentiation in highly simplified colour-coded maps, taps into actors’ instrumental problem-solving, legitimacy-seeking and power-seeking endeavours.

Third, the book theorizes institutional varieties of adopting risk analysis. It problematizes the tendency to erroneously transfer dominant assumptions about why analysis appeals in Anglo-American settings (typically as instrumental problem-solving and control of the bureaucracy) to other settings. Instead, I propose a set of hypotheses for why executive fragmentation and multiplied coordination requirements nourish actors’ attraction to analytical tools in ways that set these cases apart from the Anglo-American “forerunners” of risk-based policymaking. For example, as the German constitutional requirement of equal living conditions (gleichwertige Lebensbedingungen) has acted as a Damocles’ Sword of central intervention for autonomous state policymaking and implementation, states’ ability to prove they can coordinate policy through common risk analysis is central for defending their autonomy within the German political system. This makes voluntary promotions of shared risk analysis frameworks much more appealing in multi-level settings than ‘veto player’ type arguments might suggest.

Lastly, the book compares adoptions and uses of risk analysis empirically, across three policy domains in the Germany-EU multi-level setting (food safety, flood risk management and work safety). The in-depth comparison finds:

  1. Variable interaction patterns exist between instrumental problem-solving and polity policy orientations. For example, food safety has a long tradition of expertise-based policy harmonization and centralization within Germany (dating back to the nineteenth century) to which EU-imposed risk analysis, in response to the BSE crises from 2004 onwards (commonly known as ‘mad cow disease’), is only the most recent addition. Flood prevention has experienced a similar interaction between instrumental problem-solving and (eventual) polity-policymaking only since a 2007 introduction of EU-wide flood risk mapping. By contrast, in work safety, Länder level actors have voluntarily gathered around common risk analysis since 2014 and successfully defended their work against existential criticism after a series of work safety scandals. However, symbolic politics of the legitimacy-seeking kind cannot explain state labour inspectorates’ strong commitment to creating a common algorithm for risk-based inspections across Germany. Their risk analysis also signals to executive and legislative leaders that the low levels of funding and political salience afforded to the domain inhibit any effective control of high-risk workplaces (instrumental problem-solving).
  2. Polity fragmentation favours the adoption of risk analysis and can itself become a target for risk-based structural transformation. My study confirms that multi-level settings have a predisposition for analysis-based policy coordination among autonomous actors, much in the fashion of the “rationalist consensus” of old. This is the case in food safety controls where state and municipal level actors went much beyond EU level requirements and created a risk-scoring algorithm to prioritize inspection planning in more coordinated ways across Germany. But the study also highlights that analytical tools are central in negotiating and reworking actors’ relative positions of legitimacy and power in a domain. In flood prevention, for example, central level actors in Brussels and Berlin keenly expanded central monitoring and steering of Länder planning activities in the guise of coordinated risk mapping (power-seeking). But Länder Ministries also ‘spun’ risk analysis to shift responsibility for managing low risks back to municipal or private actors all while holding the national level more accountable for the funding of prevention measures for high-risk scenarios (legitimacy-seeking by blame shifting). Here, risk analysis became a game changer in the multi-level setting and led to (unintended) reallocations of executive roles and responsibilities in a domain.

Overall, and following in the tradition of SKAPE research, Varieties of Risk Analysis in Public Administrationsemphasizes, pinpoints, and explains interactions between evidence-based policymaking and the politics of using evidence under variable institutional conditions. If anything, the ongoing COVID-19 governance in Europe accentuates the scholarly and practical value of exploring the role of analytical models in collective problem-solving but also in the stabilization and transformation of multi-level policymaking structures.

Regine Paul is Associate Professor at the Department of Administration and Organization Theory at the University of Bergen, Norway. Her research focuses on the mutually constitutive interaction of institutions, values, and classifications in public policy governance, as well as their implications for those governed, from a comparative perspective. Her empirical expertise is in migration governance, risk analysis and risk regulation, and the use of artificial intelligence technologies in public administrations. Regine has recently published Varieties of Risk Analysis in Public Administrations. Problem-Solving and Polity Policies in Europe, which she will present at the forthcoming Interpretive Policy Analysis Conference 2021 (@ipa2021). Twitter: @ReginePaul6

Cover Picture: “Prisms”, Regine Paul