A fourth key element in contemporary risk management debates (more often implicit than fully articulated) turns on whether or not there is a reliable knowledge base on which to ground effective institutional design for risk management, and the extent to which the orthodox engineering approach to “design” can feasibly be extended to complex organizational structures, especially in social and sociotechnical systems. The majority of recommendations for change which come in the aftermath of major events/incidents/accidents, tend to be social and administrative, but it is in this very area (especially where complex systems are involved) where the greatest doubts arise about the reliability of the knowledge base on which institutional design can be built.
At one end of this spectrum are those who argue that sufficient understanding exists about how institutional design affects vulnerability to system failure and risk-taking behaviour for principles of good practice to be articulated with some confidence. For example, Breyer (1993) argues-perhaps against the temper of the times-that better-developed bureaucratic expertise along the lines of the French Conseil d'État is a better prospect for developing an approach to risk management that is authoritative, rationalized and insulated from “random agenda selection” than “recently fashionable” alternatives such as reliance on tort law or deregulation. Research in this area includes work on organizational vulnerability to major system failure (Horlick-Jones 1990,1991, Horlick-Jones & Peters 1990, Horlick-Jones et al. 1991); work on “high-reliability organizations” (Halpern 1989, Roberts 1989, Roberts & Gargano 1989, Rochlin 1989, Weick 1989; Sagan 1993:14-28 and passim); and the work of Reason (1990) and his colleagues on human error. Those who see considerable scope for the development of established principles of institutional design point to what they see as the cumulative growth of a recognized practice of corporate safety management since the mid-1980s, particularly in multinational corporations that have become concerned about the growing visibility and rising costs of large-scale accidents.