It’s the definition of a tough sell. It doesn’t have a great reputation. It is not regarded as a national treasure or source of civic pride. It is associated with burdens, red tape, and the government getting in the way of the people. I write about regulation and regulators.
I declare an interest and a passion. I worked for a regulator, the General Medical Council (GMC), the UK doctors’ regulator, for over seven years. I was responsible for several of those years for the GMC’s brand and reputation, leading its strategy and communication team. I believe passionately in the value good regulation can provide. I believe that regulation done well can both keep people safe by setting and enforcing clear, minimum standards and help to drive up performance and standards to help organisations and individuals achieve excellence and new ways of working.
Recent history of failures in banking; care homes; hospitals, such as Mid Staffs; individual healthcare practitioners (including the high profile cases of criminal breast surgeon, Ian Patterson, overseas GP Daniel Ubani and prolific serial killer, Harold Shipman); the privatised water, gas and telephone utilities and others do not help the image of regulators or the regulations they police. The events of the last few days at Grenfell Tower exposed many more areas of regulation; fire safety; health and safety; housing; building; planning; the list goes on.
Sadly, the names of regulators are best known for their association with failure, loss of public confidence and high profile cases that have made it into our newspapers and onto our TV screens; CQC and the FSA to name just two organisations branded as failures by their perceived inability to stop horrendous abuse at Winterbourne View and the country sleep-walking into the 2008 banking crisis.
Every example of when the market fails the public, or do not meet public expectations in public or private sectors, leads the same questions to be asked; what happened to the regular? Did they fall asleep on the job? How did they let this happen? And the call for action always comes; something must be done.
Why do regulators – stuffed full of bright, smart, committed, dedicated people – struggle to make the case for why they are important; why they matter; how they make a positive difference to society?
There have been attempts to redefine regulation – including work done in healthcare on “right touch regulation” but it always falls into the trap of being apologetic about regulation and why it exists. It starts from the premise that regulation should be avoided and needs to be justified first as it is inherently a bad thing. It’s back footed, lack of confidence stance feels like an obvious response to decades of political messaging and public policy which focused on trying to shrink the role of the state in favour of encouraging the market; of deregulation; of getting government off the backs of the public and out of the way of business.
The Thatcherite, Blairite and Reagan neoliberal economic revolutions have dominated thinking since the 1970s, successful positioning statutory regulation as something which should only be welcomed when absolutely necessary and after other avenues – self policing, market forces and the like – have been exhausted.
What Grenfell Towers will tell us – when the public inquiry is complete – what we already know; regulation was seen as a barrier to cost cutting, efficiency and success and was either deliberately removed, worked around or only paid passing lip service to in the pursuit of other agendas. What regulators need to do – and I speak as someone who knows how hard this is having sat in a regulator’s communications hot seat – is to explain why regulation helps, not hinders our lives; how it keeps us safe and protects us from a natural human instinct to do least possible work for the maximum reward.
Regulators need to stop apologising for themselves and their work. They need to stop defending systems and powers they have been given by successive governments which restrict their ability to protect folk and help drive up standards in public services and public life and they must speak out, asking for more powers where they need it and explain the consequences of not getting them. They will say it is not as easy as that and the government – who they need for other aspects of their work -will resist such requests – but that was before Grenfell. There is a moment to be seized now – a moment where we must try to find some light from the darkness of Latimer Road. Where we must reset the debate about why proper, well-resourced, well-focused, well-respected regulation that puts people first and profits second really matters. Why regulation is not about red tape but the difference between life and death.
Regulators need to stop being defensive when things go wrong and be more honest about why they couldn’t do what was needed – in clear, simple terms. Regulators need to be proud of what they do – they are protectors of the public and powerful voices that can hold vested interests – including the government – to account.
Regulators need to embrace their independence from governments and those they regulate and remember who they exist to serve; the public. In doing that, they can provide a much-needed antidote to the ‘two out, one in’ dogmatic lunacy that pervades government, the ‘political correctness gone mad’ feeding frenzy whipped up by sections of the media and can speak up for the voiceless.
The residents of Grenfell Tower clearly didn’t have political champions; they were too poor to matter to many – to the eternal shame of this nation – but they did have regulators. Regulators who, with more confidence and pride, could have stood up and said, “stop”.
It is now the time for regulators and regulation to play its part in the renewal of public service we patently need in this country. Time to start talking not about right touch or light touch regulation but regulation for what it is and why it exists; to save lives; to keep us all safe; to stops the horrors visited on us this week. Regulators do not exist to be a burden or a barrier but to be a bulwark; a voice for us all. The time is right for them to step up and speak out.