What makes an excellent regulator?

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  • Published Date: 24 June 2020

If you ask people what makes a great regulator they will answer with every adjective under the sun, with the possible exception of good-looking, says head of the Pennsylvania University Program on Regulation, Professor Cary Coglianese.

He said regulatory excellence was essentially people's excellence and good regulation was made all the more difficult by the fact that success was invisible.

“What does success look like? People don’t notice it,” he said.

Professor Coglianese recently joined Victoria’s Kate Maddern, current director of the Victorian Disability Worker Commission and former head of Public Transport Regulatory Operations, for an ANZSOG / National Regulators Community of Practice Webinar on Achieving Regulatory Excellence. He also answered questions from participants on issues including the recent Black Lives Matter protests in the USA.

Watch the webinar:

Professor Coglianese’s model of excellent regulatory performance, derived from deep and extensive research with practicing regulators around the world, consists of three parts:

  • Utmost Integrity: fidelity to law, respect for democracy, commitment to the public interest
  • Empathetic Engagement: even-handedness, listening, responsiveness
  • Stellar Competence: analytic capability, instrumental capacity, high performance.

He said that being a good regulator was complicated because it involved working in organisations, not solo, and was a relational enterprise.

Ms Maddern used Professor Coglianese’s framework on improving regulatory practice while heading Victoria’s Public Transport Regulatory Operations. It was instrumental in driving reform in the way the organisation dealt with people travelling without a valid ticket on public transport, and came in the wake of public outcry, unfavourable media attention and a critical Ombudsman’s report.

She said that the reforms included a focus on “removing vulnerable people from the system” by giving frontline staff discretion about who was fined, using special circumstances provisions in their legislation. Rather than use form letters filled with threatening legalese, they shifted to Plain English versions which better informed people of what was happening and their rights.

The result of a set of measures under the three dimensions of Regulatory Excellence was a 30% drop in complaints to the Victorian Public Transport Ombudsman.

Ms Maddern said it was possible for a focused effort to change how a regulator operated.

“You need to go beyond strategy and actually embed the work in the organisation, and involve staff,” Ms Maddern said.

“We made sure that we recognised and celebrated the improvements we were making.”

Professor Coglianese spoke of the need for regulators to have an “empathetic engagement” with the people they regulated and community they served, an issue brought into sharp focus by recent protests against police brutality in the USA and Australia.

A statement published by Professor Coglianese stated that:

The United States has witnessed a tremendous outpouring of grief and anger over the brutal killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in late May. Mr. Floyd’s horrific death shakes the entire nation and reveals—yet again—a deep, historic, and systemic racism that, unfortunately, continues to pervade U.S. society.

Each senseless taking of a Black person's life—and George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice are only a few of many victims—represents not merely an individual tragedy but an urgent call for an investigation into institutional failures in larger systems, especially those comprising rules and rule enforcers.

Scholars and practitioners of regulation have much more to learn about how systems of rules can both reinforce and resist institutionalised racism. Now is the time to listen to Black people and learn from their experiences to understand better how to improve the management of regulatory and law enforcement organizations to break historic patterns of oppression.

Black Lives Matter. In light of how Black Americans are adversely impacted by governmental action, improving regulatory systems and the behavior of regulatory personnel remains an essential avenue for delivering on the promise of equal justice for Black Americans, as well as for Indigenous and other minority communities who face oppression and discrimination in this country and around the world.

He told the webinar that the police chief of the City of Camden, New Jersey, had shown a way forward by marching alongside protesters, and helping the city to remain calm during and after protests.

“Again, regulatory excellence is people excellence. Leadership matters, training matters, adequate pay and resourcing matters but fundamentally regulation is a relational enterprise.”

Further resources from the webinar

Find out more about the National Regulators Community of Practice