Managing Risks in the NSW public sector: Risk culture and capability

Managing Risks in the NSW public sector: Risk culture and capability

Audit Office of NSW

"Effective risk management is essential to good governance, and supports staff at all levels to make informed judgements and decisions. At a time when government is encouraging innovation and exploring new service delivery models, effective risk management is about seizing opportunities as well as managing threats.

Over the past decade, governments and regulators around the world have increasingly turned their attention to risk culture. It is now widely accepted that organisational culture is a key element of risk management because it influences how people recognise and engage with risk. Neglecting this ‘soft’ side of risk management can prevent institutions from managing risks that threaten their success and lead to missed opportunities for change, improvement or innovation.

This audit assessed how effectively NSW Government agencies are building risk management capabilities and embedding a sound risk culture throughout their organisations. To do this we examined whether:

agencies can demonstrate that senior management is committed to risk management

information about risk is communicated effectively throughout agencies

agencies are building risk management capabilities.

The audit examined four agencies: the Ministry of Health, the NSW Fair Trading function within the Department of Finance, Services and Innovation, NSW Police Force and NSW Treasury Corporation (TCorp). NSW Treasury was also included as the agency responsible for the NSW Government's risk management framework.


All four agencies examined in the audit are taking steps to strengthen their risk culture. In these agencies, senior management communicates the importance of managing risk to their staff. They have risk management policies and funded central functions to oversee risk management. We also found many examples of risk management being integrated into daily activities.

That said, three of the four case study agencies could do more to understand their existing risk culture. As good practice, agencies should monitor their employees’ attitude to risk. Without a clear understanding of how employees identify and engage with risk, it is difficult to tell whether the 'tone' set by the executive and management is aligned with employee behaviours.

Our survey of risk culture found that three agencies could strengthen a culture of open communication, so that all employees feel comfortable speaking openly about risks. To support innovation, senior management could also do better at communicating to their staff the levels of risk they are willing to accept.

Some agencies are performing better than others in building their risk capabilities. Three case study agencies have reviewed the risk-related skills and knowledge of their workforce, but only one agency has addressed the gaps the review identified. In three agencies, staff also need more practical guidance on how to manage risks that are relevant to their day-to-day responsibilities.

NSW Treasury provides agencies with direction and guidance on risk management through policy and guidelines. Its principles-based approach to risk management is consistent with better practice. Nevertheless, there is scope for NSW Treasury to develop additional practical guidance and tools to support a better risk culture in the NSW public sector. NSW Treasury should encourage agency heads to form a view on the current risk culture in their agencies, identify desirable changes to that risk culture, and take steps to address those changes."

Source: Audit Office of NSW and available from this link (open access).