Regulating to Baseline Standards, Inspiring to Excellence
by APEGA Past-President L.B. Staples, P.Eng., FCAE, FEC, FGC (Hon.)

The role of professional regulatory organizations in a changing milieu

Recent shifts in public attitudes and potential changes to government legislation are placing professional regulatory organizations (PROs) under greater scrutiny, demanding greater transparency and accountability. Potential modernized legislation to standardize the regulatory activities of many designated professions will likely streamline the focus of the social contract between practitioners and the public (as represented by the government).

A focus on regulatory fulfilment

Modernized legislation will presumably grant of some degree of monopoly (e.g., exclusive scope of practice, right to title) in return for assurance that designated professionals will be competent, act ethically, and embrace the primary importance of serving the public interest. Many would hold that this social contract has always been clear, but the number of recent PRO-failure case studies across Canada illustrate—in a dismaying number of instances—that the imperative of serving the public interest had become secondary to insulating the PRO or even to protecting member self-interests.

Observing these failures over the last decade, many leading PROs have concentrated their efforts on effectively fulfilling their regulatory responsibilities. Operating budgets were reallocated from member-oriented activities to regulatory activities.

Legislators and PROs seem to be on the same page with respect to goals. They focus on serving the public interest, on practice standards and continuing professional development, and on clear and relevant standards for education. They ensure fair and transparent procedures for registration, investigations, hearings, appeals, and sanctions, all of which sit under the umbrella of sound governance and accountability. So all is good, right? The answer is yes—and no.

A duty to regulate, a commitment to inspire

The answer is “yes” in the sense that focusing on serving the public interest and the above-listed goals will fulfil the agreed-upon social contract while achieving clarity, relevance, fairness, transparency, and accountability, and it will give the public confidence that the social contract is providing significant mutual benefit. However, although passing the test of public confidence falls in the realm of the necessary, by itself it is not sufficient.

The “no” arises from the predictable shortfall in meeting the full potential to serve society as a profession by inspiring excellence over and above the minimum standards required for professional registration. In the current milieu of regulatory step change, there is a risk that PROs, as they deemphasize or divest member-oriented activities, will become faceless police upholding dry, minimum standards. Gone would be the collegial conferences, the hard-working committees, the networks of like-minded peers available for a quick word of guidance. The scholarships and awards ceremonies that not only celebrate remarkable successes, but also inspire colleagues to strive for such success, would be events of the past.

In short, inattentive PROs could gravitate to effective regulation of minimum standards but systematically fall short of a culture of professionalism and well-short of a culture of inspired excellence.

Leading companies have known for decades of the power corporate culture has to supercharge the delivery of policies and standards. There are innumerable examples of the deliberate development of cultures of safety, quality, and customer service.

PROs should be intentional about inspiring their registrants—they have a unique opportunity to leverage their common ground, such as similar technical education and work experiences, to build a strong culture of excellence. This will serve the public over the long term—the social contract will be more than fulfilled.

A future of professionalism and regulatory excellence

The foregoing points are not an argument to hold on to conferences, scholarships, and awards ceremonies in the way they used to be delivered. PROs are in an era of innovation. As the proposed changes to legislation come into force, PROs must focus on serving the public interest with clarity, relevance, fairness, transparency, and accountability.

Leading PROs will leverage this era of challenge and opportunity by effectively regulating to baseline standards, while also intentionally investing in building a culture that fosters professionalism and excellence to serve the short- and long-term public interest.