'What keeps you awake at night?': A guide to the government risk management profession

In this ongoing series, CSW provides a guide to professions and functions across the civil service. Here we offer a glimpse at risk management professionals do, and how they work with other parts of government
Photo: Adobe Stock

By Civil Service World

26 Mar 2024


Who are they?

The government risk profession is relatively new – it sits within the government finance function and was only formalised as a profession following the Covid-19 pandemic. Working across the public sector, the profession helps ministers and officials understand and manage key risks in their line of work and bring coherence to cross-government processes. The profession provides oversight and assurance, confirming that proper management is in place across government and ensuring that all decisions taken by government provide value for money to taxpayers.

A common role in the profession is a risk manager position, responsible for supporting leaders in identifying, managing and understanding the risk exposure of both business-as-usual work and stand-alone projects.

What do they do?

Risks are varied and wide ranging. They might encompass anything from considering the potential loss of life that might be caused by a poor-quality building proposal to the barriers for a project delivering against policy outcomes. In all, risk professionals are responsible for spotlighting challenges that could prevent the effective delivery of government projects.

It’s less about providing solutions, and more about spotting potential problems and helping the teams decide the best ways to manage them. While policy teams will deliver alternatives when a risk is spotted, those in risk management are responsible for making sure the information around all government decisions has been considered fully, and that correct processes have been followed to reach a final decision.

Civil servants are often stereotyped as risk-averse, but Dan Tope-Charlton, head of risk management effectiveness for the profession, explains that it’s not about derailing progress. Risk-orientated provision provides a full picture of all potential decision outcomes. “We’re making clear what the risks are when making decisions,” he says. “It’s not a ‘no’; it’s a ‘if you want to do that, this might be a safer way to achieve the same thing’.”

 Where can they be found?

Embedded roles are found in every department, and the number in each organisation varies. Currently, there are more than 800 risk managers working in the profession at large. The central team – led by head of profession Clive Martin (see box below) – is based in the Treasury where the wider finance function is based.

View from the top

A headshot of Clive MartinClive Martin, head of the government risk profession

Like many in the profession, Martin started his career in the private sector. After studying risk management at university in the 1980s – “when Kylie Minogue was first in the charts” – he completed a certified qualification at the Institute of Risk Management, embarking on risk management roles in a variety of industries including hospitality, insurance and financial services. Following 17 years at EY, the last nine of which involved developing client-facing risk management practices as an equity partner, he joined the civil service.

As head of a newly-formed government profession, Martin is the first person to hold the role. He was attracted to the scope and impact it offered: “The opportunity to make a difference is huge”.

Martin oversees a “very broad remit” making his job “one of the most fascinating risk management roles on the planet”. Projects may deal with long-term risks, such as those related to climate change, or consider more immediate threats, like cyber breaches. He notes that increased complexity, uncertainty, variability and volatility makes the job an ever-evolving challenge which “can mean that your risks aren’t what you thought they were”.

He sees maintaining and developing relationships as a key part of his role. Responsibilities include working with public bodies, participating and leading conversations with senior officials and collaborating with other risk experts in specialist fields. One overarching duty is to develop a cohesive risk management vision across government.

Eighteen months into the job, the creation of an accreditation mechanism for the profession is one of the projects he is most proud of. The scheme, launched with the aim of standardising the profession in government, allows individuals to become accredited risk managers. The first cohort recently qualified. “We’re working on a new vision for the risk profession as part of a wider vision for risk management across government,” Martin tells CSW.

What’s a simple way to sum up his job? “It’s all about helping people that are not in the profession better manage risk,” Martin says, explaining that his team essentially support other civil servants as they grapple with uncertainty. Looking ahead, he hopes to increase the influence risk professionals have in government even further

What is a typical career path like?

Most civil servants begin their careers outside of risk management. A typical starting point is in project delivery. Likewise, transfers from financial functions are common. Auditors in finance and defence roles will likely have the requisite skills needed for the profession.

Others arrive in the profession through the private sector, according to Tope-Charlton. Former insurance and risk analysts from heavily regulated industries like insurance or financial services sectors are common hires.

Which professions do they work most closely with?

Project delivery and finance. Ensuring risk is considered from the outset of government work is key, according to Tope-Charlton: “It’s really important for us to be able to influence at the point where the decisions are taken,” he says. “By influencing project delivery, we’re able to make sure that decisions are taken as early as possible within a lifecycle of developing and delivery.”

What are they most likely to say?

“What keeps you awake at night?” is a regularly heard phrase. The core objective of the profession is to discover the “big things” that senior officials are worried about, so most risk assessments start with this question.

“The core objective of the profession is to discover the ‘big things’ that senior officials are worried about”

Another commonly heard phrase is: “Why are we worried about it, and what are we going to do about it?” Working through worries, writing them down and talking about them before managing them properly helps take the stress out of professional decision making. Tope-Charlton explains: “People don’t want to engage with risk managers… They think we’re boring… but the number of times you hear how therapeutic the conversation has been at the end of [a project] is amazing.” Ergo, another commonly heard phrase heard on the lips of those who work with risk mangers is: “This was really therapeutic”.

How is the profession being developed?

Formalised as a profession following the pandemic, the government risk profession is now growing rapidly, with a concerted effort underway to raise its profile and increase awareness of risk management more generally across government.

The central team, which develops guidance products, is currently being built up, and they recently launched a risk management accreditation to deliver good practice at a cross-government level. So far, over 40 people have been accredited.

The top team is also focused on developing a sense of community within the profession, running monthly webinars that bring together good practice learning, with real examples provided by current risk management professionals.

What are their priorities at the moment?

A key priority is understanding and facilitating a pipeline of risk management professionals who can be scattered across government departments. “How can we get people qualified to do risk management?” asks Tope-Charlton. “How can we keep them, and how can we grow our collective knowledge and ability to influence on a real level?” Accreditation is one solution, but Tope-Charlton also highlights the development of an e-learning course for the civil service, which will introduce individuals to related frameworks and cover core risk principles.

Another priority is working on cross-government approaches: “We do the Civil Service Board risk reporting”, says Tope-Charlton. “It’s a fantastic way for us to highlight or raise the profile of risk areas that cut across multiple ministerial departments and public service areas.” The Civil Service Board – which is responsible for the strategic leadership of the civil service – acts at the most senior level of government, so implementing risk management here ensures the necessary processes and frameworks become part and parcel of government working. 


View from the top

Frontline view

Oliver Stadon, head of risk management, Home Office

“There is no other role I would do,” Oliver Stadon says. “I’ve fallen in love with risk.”

Stadon began his civil service career as a “summer casual” in the Ministry of Defence after leaving university. It was 2003 and Stadon had figured out that his plan to become a history teacher would take too long to realise before it would start paying the bills. Stadon ended up staying in the MoD – in Defence Equipment & Support – for 17 years, until February 2020.

A highlight of that time was being in Afghanistan for seven months, and witnessing in real-time the net impact of his previous roles in DE&S. His experience on the ground also helped with those tricky negotiations with the Treasury back in London. Stadon recalls the time when he was leading a commercial team and, during one meeting, managed to secure additional funding for the United Kingdom’s operations in Afghanistan.

“I brandished a piece of body armor with a bullet hole in it to say: ‘Look, this is why we need the money. This is the difference it makes. This serviceman’s life was saved because he didn’t have critical injuries,’” Stadon says.

It was during that time that he began to engage with the idea that risk management helps you prepare for things going awry.

“You can’t plan the future, no one has a crystal ball. But you can think about scenarios upstream: sometimes, there can be one thing that goes wrong that ruins the whole plan,” he says.

For the best part of four years, Stadon has worked in the Home Office as head of risk management. He is based in the corporate centre, leading risk management teams and setting policy processes while looking at the big risks facing the department.

His focus is setting a standard for what good risk management looks like across the Home Office, and his goal is to foster a culture where people integrate risk prevention into their everyday working practices.

Stadon says that risk management can sometimes feel “counterintuitive”.

“We’re not always in the habit of learning from experience and thinking about what could go wrong,” he says. “You could avoid problems in the future if you think about them now, but people don’t work like that. We tend to plan for success. That’s the human condition.”

Thankfully, that’s where his profession steps in.

Stadon recently sprained his ankle by sliding on the gravel drive outside his front door – the exact place where he’d had the same accident before. He says that incidents like this serve as a daily reminder that risk management is a difficult, yet essential art to master.

Share this page