Creating opportunities for regulators to collaborate – reflections from the COVID-19 frontline
12 July 2022● News and media
This guest editorial was written for the ANZSOG/National Regulators Community of practice monthly newsletter, highlighting new additions to the Regulation Policy and Practice collection on APO. The RP&P collection brings together a range of practical resources from national, local and state/territory governments, regulatory agencies and external institutions conducting monitoring, inquiries and reviews. You can receive this newsletter by joining the ANZSOG/National Regulators Community of Practice (membership is free) or subscribe to the newsletter directly.
By Chris Webb
With my time leading the COVID-19 Response, Compliance and Enforcement operation for Department of Health coming to an end, I’ve had some time to reflect on what has been an amazing experience as a regulator.
During my time in the response operation, people within my own team willingly moved between programs with little notice to make sure we could tackle the biggest risks in front of us. Across the broader government response, rapid change was settled, communicated and regularly executed within 24 hours by multiple teams; and when necessary, resources shared to make sure the response worked as a package. Between agencies, intelligence and regulatory information were shared, joint work and referrals flowed constantly, and MOUs were settled within weeks.
The pace was exhausting but it was balanced by the exhilaration of seeing just what is possible when we work together.
It’s often observed in an emergency response that the public service, including regulators, are able to act swiftly, choose decisively and collaborate consistently often in ways that defy the common perception of government. Conversely, those involved will often lament that we seem to be unable to replicate this positive experience once everything reverts to “business as usual”.
This begs two questions – what is it about response operations that creates a different way of working, and what stops us from bringing it back to our everyday work? This topic could fill a book, and I’m not suggesting that it can be solved in a few trite paragraphs, but I think we need to keep questioning our accepted and limiting norms.
The first part of the question usually provides a simple and immediate answer – that there is a single and aligned purpose that effectively enables everyone to see themselves as part of one team. Maybe less obvious, but equally important, is that the formal structures and protocols adopted in response to an emergency provide the channels, tools and governance to work across existing boundaries. As was observed to me on numerous occasions, there is a far greater tolerance for implementing an imperfect “something” rather than a perfect “nothing”.
So then to the harder piece – why do we accept that this can’t be translated through to “peace time”?
I’ve heard lots of reasons, but as an old teacher nemesis of mine used to say, reasons are just excuses unless you start improving your performance. “We’ve got different priorities, we don’t have a mandate to act, it needs to go through our internal approval processes, we need more legal advice,” The list goes on. We’ve all used them, we’ve all said them, but these sorts of excuses all seem to melt away when a situation becomes urgent.
I contend that the power of a singular purpose creates the will to work together and that this will overcomes the barriers rather than some abstract concept of alignment. Whilst we may not always have perfectly parallel priorities, there is usually common ground where the regulatory outcome we collectively seek can be greater than the sum of its parts. The mandate to act may not exist in ordinary times, but is it conceivable that the support could be built if we could articulate the collective value?
I think that the structures and protocols of response operations simply define the ways of working together as a guide, they still rely on the participants to act in concert. Most regulators rely on structures and operating protocols, however they are often defined within the bounds of a single entity and focused on the regulators’ primary role. Is it too big a stretch to consider structures and protocols that could sit across multiple regulators?
Most regulators are faced with inherently wicked problems where a world of ‘least worst’ options and setbacks are an accepted part of the path to a solution. Can we not take a similar view of joint operations, where failure and setbacks are seen as evidence that we are tackling big issues and not just the safe linear ones, rather than proof of a flawed idea?
Of course, only a diehard optimist would consider that we could continue to achieve all the performance gains of an emergency response once the crisis was over. It’s likely the inherent chaos and cadence would be difficult to sustain anyway. I think that we should challenge the status quo however, and seek to create the opportunities to collaborate, share and bring the best of what we have seen regulators are capable of when they work together. At worst we might learn from each other, but at best we might deliver common purpose and public good.