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New insights for regulators with Harvard’s Professor Malcolm Sparrow

25 October 2022

News and media


Regulation is one of the more demanding areas of public management, combining high levels of technical knowledge, as well as craft skills, good judgment and a sixth sense for reading the political environment. As the world recovers from the impacts of COVID-19, it has never been more important for regulators to develop a clearer understanding of how to deliver effective risk-control, solve important problems and manage compliance, on limited budgets. 

Despite operating in widely different sectors, regulators across Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand share common challenges and constraints, something that Harvard Kennedy School Professor Malcolm Sparrow understands through his wide experience of working with Australian regulatory agencies and teaching for ANZSOG. 

After two years online, his Managing Regulation Enforcement and Compliance (MREC) program returns to in-person delivery this November/December with six-day programs in Brisbane and Canberra that will examine the distinctive managerial and operational challenges faced by government officials and other professionals who have regulatory, enforcement, security, compliance-management, or other risk-control responsibilities. 

“In this course, I hope to honour the importance of the role that regulatory practitioners play, and to recognise the complexity of the choices they face as they design their regulatory operations and carry out their public duties,” says Professor Sparrow. 

“Many participants leave the program excited to think of themselves as part of a community of professional regulators, experts in the art of risk-control and harm-reduction.” 

This one-of-a-kind workshop emphasises the management and operations of such agencies (regulatory practice) as opposed to the reform of law (regulatory policy), and it is oriented more towards social regulation (provision of safety, health, security) rather than economic regulation (efficient functioning of specific markets). 

Suzannah Payne, Director, Legal, Resources Safety & Health Queensland (RSHQ), participated in MREC in 2021 and is one of several senior staff at RSHQ to have completed the program. RSHQ is the independent regulator of worker safety and health in Queensland’s mining, quarrying, petroleum, gas and explosives industries and adopts a risk-based approach to regulations, operating under legislation that is risk-based rather than prescriptive. 

“One of the most valuable insights for me was appreciating that regulation is a craft in its own right.  The course gave me a greater understanding of some of the tools that can be applied to achieve the best regulatory outcomes,” Ms Payne said. 

 “One of the highlights for me was the content around ‘problem-centric’ versus ‘program-centric’ approaches. Prior to attending the course, I was probably more comfortable working with a program-centric approach, so it was great to gain a better understanding of the benefits of incorporating a problem-centric approach as part of an overall regulatory strategy. Working in a dynamic regulatory environment there are definitely benefits in adopting a more agile approach to ensure that the focus remains on preventing serious harms.” 

 “I liked Malcolm’s focus on adopting a balanced approach to regulation, particularly in relation to promoting the good versus controlling the bad.  The course made me realise that there is no clear-cut version of what it is to be a good regulator.  But rather good regulation is a craft that requires organisations to have a consistent and committed approach with the right people, with the necessary skills and authority, applying the right tools as part of day-to-day operations. 

 “You need to continually keep thinking about why you are doing things. Asking ‘what is the outcome you are trying to achieve?’ and ‘is there a better way of achieving it?’” 

 Ms Payne said that being able to meet and discuss issues with regulatory peers from across Australia was another valuable part of the course. 

“It was interesting to hear about the shared difficulties that are faced by regulators across Australia. Having to deal with ever increasing volumes of documents and data and having to do more with less were common themes”.

“It was especially valuable speaking with other regulators who work with risk-based legislation. Adopting a risk-based approach when you are responsible for enforcing risk-based legislation creates additional complexity and it was good to share experiences with other regulators who are in that environment.”

 She said that she would recommend the course for other regulators who wanted to think more deeply about their work and the craft of regulation. 

Nicole Pyner, co-ordinator Crypto Supervision, Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), has spent over 20 years working for ASIC and has attended two of Professor Sparrow’s ANZSOG workshops, as well as long term in-house work he has done with ASIC. She credits Professor Sparrow with inspiring her to think more strategically about her work. 

“The best thing about being introduced to Malcolm Sparrow’s work is that it gives you a lens to think strategically about these issues, and to look at the job beyond ‘the next file on the pile’. You really need to think strategically when you are in a complex and politically-sensitive area of regulation.” 

She said that Professor Sparrow’s ANZSOG workshops were an eye-opener for people new to regulation or new to senior positions, and would give them a more sophisticated and strategic way to do their job. 

“He gets you to think about how you use discretion – is it fair? Is it appropriate? He also covers the use of data, which he has been talking about well before other people. He also gets to questions about media management and crisis management that regulators need to understand. It’s important to start to think about those issues early in your career.” 

She said that for senior people, the workshops could also reinvigorate their understanding of their work and give them a sense of how their work fits into the bigger picture of the organisation. 

“Malcolm is good at getting people to look at the whole regulatory landscape and how we can identify and address harms. This takes a certain amount of guts because you need to be able to stand up to media and political pressures” 

Registrations for both the Canberra and Brisbane deliveries of MREC are now open. This workshop will provide you with an opportunity to be part of a stimulating, intellectually rigorous learning environment. Discussions and cases will span a variety of regulatory and enforcement domains, from the environment to public health to crime. Each case is chosen based on its ability to provoke, illuminate, and define ubiquitous dilemmas and emerging approaches. 

A critical component of the program involves personal reflection upon your own professional experiences and sharing these examples in both small group and class sessions. You will leave the program with a better understanding of the pressures faced by regulators today and a broader appreciation of potential adaptations you might make in response. 

The program is designed for career public servants destined for senior management and executive roles and provides them with an understanding of a broad range of opportunities to improve the value and effectiveness of agency operations.