It is widely agreed that if there are to be cuts in the public sector they should be focused on reducing the huge levels of bureaucracy premised on regulation and compliance. But, it is important that not all regulation and compliance is discarded. The converse of heavily bureaucratised regulation is the facade of spurious ‘self-regulation’, behind which dangerous practices and exploitation can go on unchecked. A balance has to be achieved.
One of the principle arguments against the excess of regulation and compliance in contemporary British society is that compliance and it’s accompanying supervisory and inspection apparatus has becomes a means of trying to impose ideal social values and ways of life on people. A hypothetical, fictional example may serve to illustrate this.
Suppose a national QUANGO has been set up to inspect the country’s restaurants and to ensure that they are meeting good standards. We’ll call this the National Inspectorate of Restaurants Authority or NIRA Now I know next to nothing about how to run a restaurant, but I eat out a lot and there are three important criteria which I and most people who dine out wish to see in a restaurant. They are:
- That it serves good, edible food
- That the kitchens are clean and good hygiene standards are practised by the staff
- That service is friendly and punctual, but not too rushed.
Our fictional agency, NIRA, also has these three areas in their spotlight. But in addition is further set of three. These are:
- Does the restaurant practice ‘portion control’ in order to contribute to reducing rates of obesity and generally encouraging a good diet?
- Does the restaurant seek to ensure diversity in its recruitment and employment in line with anti-discriminatory practice?
- Does the restaurant seek to ascertain the views of its local community, its customers and staff in order to ensure it is consulting and encouraging participation of its ‘stakeholders’?
I could pick many other areas, such as the restaurant’s carbon footprint in terms of climate change, but let’s strict to these three. You may think that these extra factors to be inspected and monitored were quite marginal to the business of preparing, cooking and service food, which is a restaurant’s raison d’être.
Not so. The restaurant will be marked and inspected equally by NIRA on all six. So if the restaurant is performing well on the first three it will only get an adequate or satisfactory report if it fails miserably on the latter three. Conversely, it can fall down on one of the three elements that most people would regard as essential for a good restaurant but can still receive a good report if it is performing well on the latter three.
In other words, in this fictional example, restaurants are not just being inspected for how well they’re delivering and performing the things we expect restaurants to do, but how well or otherwise they’re delivering or contributing to policy on healthy eating, anti-discrimination and empowering communities, amongst others.
Ok, there is no equivalent of NIR in the real world of restaurants, but there are numerous national regulatory bodies in health, education, social services and other fields where the inspection process goes way beyond the actual operation of schools, hospitals, social work etc and seeks to assess how organisations are carrying out and effectively implementing areas of social policy.
If we are to be serious about striking a balance between over-regulation and the legitimate need to ensure agencies, whether public, private or voluntary sector are delivering good quality decent services as we expect them to do, then we have to restrict monitoring, inspection and regulation to the actual tasks we expect agencies to perform, not some aspirational wish-list to achieve desirable policy ends, no matter how laudable.