Government travel controversies expose need for risk management plans, experts say

·2 min read

The backlash against Canadian politicians who travelled to warmer climes over the holidays despite public health warnings to stay home is a wake-up call that organizations need clear risk management plans, experts say.

The fallout of ignoring travel restrictions could have lasting repercussions on individual careers, an organization’s reputation and, more critically, public adherence to COVID-19 rules, they say.

Omer Livvarcin, a researcher and part-time business professor at the University of Ottawa, said the vacation controversy has exposed the need for robust risk management plans.

"Most of us didn't expect COVID to have an influence on the reputation of individuals or governments or organizations," said Livvarcin, co-author of the book "Risk Management for Nonprofit Organizations."

"This is something new. I think from now on all of the organizations that worry about their reputation will pay attention to this."

But it's not enough to simply identify the risks, Livvarcin said.

Instead, he said businesses and governments must develop clear action plans and rules for navigating the pandemic and managing their public image, especially when it comes to leaders.

Then, they need to stick to it.

"Many organizations develop risk management plans but they fail to develop an action plan that they actually follow," Livvarcin said. "That's the critical part."

Still, he said any politician who was planning to head south on vacation later this winter has likely already cancelled their plans in the wake of the current scandal.

"I don't think anybody who is worried about their reputation is going to be willing to take that risk now," he said.

A growing number of federal and provincial politicians have faced public scorn in recent days for travelling outside the country at a time when Canadians are being urged to avoid non-essential travel to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Coleen Clark, professor emeritus of finance at Ryerson University, said clear rules are needed because everyone assesses risks differently and some people don't feel the travel warnings apply to them.

She said the contradiction of telling ordinary people to stay home and then hopping on a plane to fly to a sunny destination could encourage others to flout the rules, worsening the pandemic.

"This idea that the rules don't apply to them is very offensive," said Clark, author of the textbook "Risk Management and Insurance in Canada."

She said organizations need a comprehensive risk management plan that spells out the rules for everyone – especially elected officials or senior leaders.

"There can't be room for choice or wiggle room."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 4, 2021.

Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press