Monday, 11 February 2013

The fantasy at the heart of so much regulation

You have to listen through three hours if you missed it on the Today programme this morning, but Christopher Haskins hit the nail on the head about the growing horsemeat scandal.  I sat up on my seat when I heard him talk about regulation, because I think this gets to the core of it.

We have to fill in all this paperwork, he said.  "Everyone fills in forms to say they are doing the right thing but they don't actually look at the factory to see whats going in on the factory."

So this is my excuse for writing about the regulators for the third blog post running, because hidden away here is the clue we are looking for to what has gone wrong - not just with food regulation, but hospital regulation (think Mid Staffs) and banking regulation (think Libor) too.

Because the regulators were re-organised in the Blair and Brown years to make their main focus the auditing of process.

We need to look a little more closely at why this was a problem, because it isn't immediately obvious why intelligent people should think that checking procedures should have automatically meant that regulation had been satisfied.  The was the utilitarian fantasy of the New Labour years, that process was all that counted - worse, that if you got the procedures right, then the outcome was inevitable.

Hence Michael Barber's Deliverology team hunched over traffic lights targets that bore little relation to what was happening in the real world.

Hence the Department for Education's room where all the targets converged, a kind of fantastical dashboard which gave officials the illusion that they were at the controls of a vast education machine.

Hence the bizarre reliance on the auditing of target figures instead of actual leadership in our public services.

It was a capitulation to the discredited ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor, that there was "one best way" to do any job.  If the procedures were there, then the outcome must follow, or so they believed - encouraged by the Taylorist cheerleaders in the IT and management consultancies.  It was also a system designed to undermine professional judgement: judgement was not required - the numbers and processes were designed centrally.

So there are two problems here, and we need to talk about them.

First: our regulators are designed and structured for that kind of vacuous regulation - a kind of virtual regulation that assumes the real world is like the virtual world, when it isn't.  Simply calling for professional standards is not enough.  The regulators have to be re-organised.

Second: the coalition has still not really understood the mistakes of the public service and regulation system they inherited.  There is still no narrative to explain what went wrong - and explain it to the public or grasp the nettle to do something about it.  Because they haven't grasped it and, in some ways, are still making the same mistakes (shared back offices, digital by default, payment by results).

If we don't do anything about this, the following will happen:

1.  There will be more scandals in every area of public life, wherever the approved procedures were organised before anyone could imagine what else might go wrong.

2.  The sheer expense of regulation will rise exponentially.  In social care, for example, local authorities already have their own regulation structures because they know the Care Quality Commission isn't up to the job.  If you have inadequate regulators, you get over-regulation.

3.  Professionals will not recover their room for manoeuvre or their sense of responsibility, because the regulators are still trying to measure their compliance with processes and procedures - rather than the effectiveness of their judgement.

So now you know!  I've written more about Taylor in my book The Human Element.

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