When human service providers hear the term “risk management” they almost always have similar responses involving the flight or fight decision making process. There is often a low level of anxiety present during risk management meetings, and the process of risk management is seen as onerous and a necessary evil. The problem at hand is that the focus within most organizations is on minimizing losses, rather than on realizing opportunities. Lost in translation between the theoretical level, the state regulatory and funding level, and then at the organizational level, is that the focus is on risks to be avoided and not on opportunities to be gained.

Risk in human services occurs primarily because of the actions or inactions of staff, or by a desire on the part of service users to engage in behavior deemed “risky.” The very first case one of the authors had to deal with was with a man who had gotten a job as a custodian. He was to be at work at 7am, and asked if he could ride his bicycle. The supervisors’ first answer was “no” as the bus would get him there at 6:50am, plenty of time to make it to work. He persisted, and asked again to ride his bike, in pleading tones. The supervisor relented, and that morning he was hit and killed by a drunk driver.

The driver’s defense attorney questioned why a man affected by an intellectual disability was riding his bicycle on a busy highway at 6:30 in the morning, why his staff and the supervisor were so reckless as to put this man in danger. There was an investigation by the state as to why this occurred, and the supervisor was grilled relentlessly in the newspaper and in the courts. The reason the organization and the supervisor were not held to be negligent was that he had been through a bicycle safety course sponsored by the police department, was wearing a helmet, and was riding where he was taught to ride by the police.

In our zeal to avoid negative consequences in the process of managing risk, we often make or are tempted to make decisions that are aversive, although in a benign way. We just say “no” to requests from individuals as it is in their best interest, we tell ourselves. In managing risk, we ultimately avoid opportunities for growth.

One of the authors is the CEO of a consulting firm, and he states “having been in executive positions in human service governmental and non-governmental organizations, I can tell you I never had my name in the paper or on a letter from a regulatory body for saying “no” to a service user”. In the human service field, we do a great deal of training in person centered planning and the concept of dignity of risk, but the fact remains that our lawyers and insurance professionals tell us to focus not on the legal definition of risk management, but on the operational definition.

In order to maintain the safety of all people and achieve the goal of maximizing independence for individuals served, a new approach to risk is needed. We need to use the definition in the Australian and New Zealand standards (1999) that risk and opportunity co-exist with each other. The last thing we need to do is change the name from Risk Management to Opportunity Enhancement. We want to enhance the quality of life for all people, regardless of their role in the human service system. Doing so will provide a framework for decision making that is based on the values we at The Mandt System value for ourselves and most of all for those we serve. Evaluating opportunities and risks jointly between service providers, service managers, risk managers, and most importantly the individuals we serve will provide a framework, which can minimize risk, maximize safety and opportunity, and do so in a manner directed by the individuals we serve.

Bob Bowen, CEO
Tim Geels, Director of Organizational Sustainability
Vaughan Bowie, Australian Coordinator