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  • Garrett Tyson

Owning Regulatory Compliance

Most regulatory and compliance agencies implement through rule making and enforcement. This is an incomplete strategy that has failed repeatedly across time and location. Yet it remains an attractive strategy for the bureaucrat who can project responsibility for compliance onto the regulated party.


Here are the rules. It is your job to follow them perfectly, every time. It is my job to check to see if you are following them and compel you to follow them if you are not. I will also penalize you for not following them.

Regulatory agencies with police powers frequently presume that the regulations are well known, well understood, and can easily be complied with on a regular basis. From the point of view of the regulatory and enforcement officials, compliance is simple and should be routine for the regulated party. In many cases, bureaucrats develop a perspective on the regulated activities that is focused exclusively on compliance with rules. The reality is that regulated activities are complex and multifaceted in their purpose and function. Mere compliance with any given set of rules is not, by itself, any guaranty of any particular public good, including justice.


A better approach is for the regulatory agency and its officials to take more ownership over the compliance aspect. This means to actually expend resources to aid compliance. This approach involves more than mere enforcement of rules and codes. This approach involves education, publicity, enhanced communication, instruction, partnership and participation in compliance efforts. This approach involves the deliberate and thoughtful pursuit of justice. This approach means the government puts skin in the game. Shared interests and shared risk. We are in this together. No more us and them, just we.


As public administrators, we have to view our jobs as achieving compliance and doing justice, not merely enforcing rules. It should be our goal to achieve compliance effectively and efficiently. Enforcement by itself is not always an effective or efficient way to achieve compliance. Often times it is a very wasteful approach to achieving compliance. Many times enforcement can actually have the unintended and counter productive effect of actually making compliance increasingly improbable. Regulated parties come to rely on the enforcement officials as quality control agents and abdicate any responsibility for compliance to the enforcement effort. This is usually out of resentment, ignorance or gamesmanship. The regulated parties learn how to game the enforcement system in order to do less work and increase the work and costs of the regulators.


To correct this, we must develop a partnership toward compliance where both the regulated and the regulator have well defined interests in gaining sustained compliance.


For example, it is a compliance failure if a compliance review requires multiple review cycles to correct the same deficiency. The failure is on the regulator as much as on the regulated, maybe more so. It is a failure on both sides if there is a need for a re-inspection or a penalty fee for repeated inspection failures.


We continue to build resentment and mistrust by perpetuating this tunnel vision on enforcement that lends itself to unhelpful stereotypes, bad assumptions, prejudices, and limited thinking.

We must be wary of the tendency of the regulator to cast blame onto the regulated for compliance failures. This tendency leads to an unhealthy lack of accountability for compliance. In the end, this leads to a situation in which the regulator's job is nothing more than to create rules and enforce them, which is a deprived form of public policy. Enforcement is only one potential aspect of a compliance effort. Only one tool in the toolbox. For too long we have neglected the other elements of compliance and rule of law and we are paying the price with increasingly low trust and confidence in what we do. We continue to build resentment and mistrust by perpetuating this tunnel vision on enforcement that lends itself to unhelpful stereotypes, bad assumptions, prejudices, and limited thinking.


We wrongfully and tragically assume that we comprehend the whole of the situation when we determine whether a legal violation has or has not occurred. We narrow and shrink our reality and our perception to a series of protocols and legal maxims. Our world becomes black and white and our actions become bureaucratic and cold.

Our focus on enforcement as the goal of policing confuses the ends with the means. It also creates a sort of tunnel vision that neglects to attend to a multitude of facets of justice. Enforcement activity gives us only a limited perspective on the tip of the iceberg when it comes to situations involving real people making poor decisions (which makes them human, just like you and I). We wrongfully and tragically assume that we comprehend the whole of the situation when we determine whether a legal violation has or has not occurred. We narrow and shrink our reality and our perception to a series of protocols and legal maxims. Our world becomes black and white and our actions become bureaucratic and cold.


It does not have to be this way. We can do better. Every individual is worthy of excellent public service and to deliver that public service requires us to elevate our perspective and start doing so much more than mere enforcement. It is time to #BeCivicMinded.

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