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This guide explores how local authorities can reframe risk to enable innovation, by widening the lens and expanding the space for upside possibilities. It also provides tools to help others understand their organisation’s ‘risk maturity’ and identify the cultural conditions affecting their ability to reframe risk.

One of the foundational principles of public policy is to ‘do no harm’. It can seem almost inconceivable for risk to be allowed in an operating environment where public money is being spent, public scrutiny takes place and services are working with some of society’s most vulnerable people. But in some instances it may be that failing to try new things or doing nothing at all is a risk in itself.

In addition to this, the idea of risk avoidance and aversion has become a dominant and crucial feature in the way public services are designed, managed and reviewed. Public servants are often tasked with managing the possibility of something bad happening, and services are designed to respond to and mitigate against these negative risks.

The problem is that too often, negative or ‘downside’ risks (children being abused in foster care, for example) are managed in ways that limit opportunities for positive outcomes or ‘upside possibilities’ (children helping to co-design the type of care they receive). This obstructs collective problem solving, mutual accountability, the ability of frontline staff to respond to the root causes of people’s needs and the sharing of power with citizens.

Reframing risk requires us to reflect on how risk is conceived of, managed and measured. While this shift can be reflected in technical approaches to defining and managing risk in practice, we believe that the ‘reframing of risk’ is predominantly a mindset and cultural shift — it is people’s thoughts and beliefs that underpin how they act, and individual attitudes to risk can be deeply ingrained.

By exploring and re-weighting the upside possibility, local authorities may find that innovation can be a risk-reducing activity.

Created using the insight and practical experiences of the Upstream Collaborative’s Risk & Innovation workgroup, facilitated by Collaborate.