Compliance, or conformance as is alternatively used, is a means to an end. Not an end in itself. In haste to improve the world via compliance we sometimes forget that.
Compliance presumes that rules laid down by regulators are a “good enough” way to achieve safety. Compliance’s foundation is the minimum-standard. Foundations cannot be anything like the maximum-standard because best practice regulation knowledge backs up our common sense that maximum standards would be bad and expensive. But wouldn’t it be comforting to be able to encourage and get more than just the minimum?
Some who have felt the stick end of compliance might think some regulators believe their rules and guides are the only path to safety. But the fact is that even the best codes & regulations have flaws; they do change. Furthermore, exemptions get provided, position papers and codes of practice get written to fill the gaps. And they get re-written. Sometimes the reasons for a rule are lost in time. Shamefully, sometimes valid reasons never existed. Sometimes rules are written to serve the purposes of some over others or to empower authority. We can know this because COAG and the OBPR have to warn against it.
Regulations are very rightly constrained by good regulation requirements. They should be evidence based and not exist ‘just in case’ and when there is not even a problem for it to solve. Compliance, based on properly constrained regulation will be fair for the complier, but possibly unsatisfying for regulators that can see scope for better. Regulation can provide a useful and even inspiring framework but it never sets out the optimal path for everyone to maximise safety. And regulations and codes can hardly contain the latest state of knowledge.
But if people are driven by regulators, overtly or subtly, to have a “compliance” culture then a tendency can grow to do only what the regulators instruct and grudgingly. Compliance risks closing minds and making us lazy because when we comply there can be tendencies to subcontract much of our thinking to someone else. We naturally presume rules, codes and standards are good, fair and wisely constructed and that can be wrong and dangerous.
My experience is that when compliance culture is too strong, many act as if regulations, codes and standards are akin to gospel; they presume that the authors (i.e. an unseen committee, the government, the brains-trust and so forth) have already worked out the path to optimal safety. The strong and caring personalities, brought up in a culture of compliance, step up to the plate and see to it that we shall all do what that authority instructs – and no less. Sometimes battles of will erupt that supersede sensibility and proper understanding of outcomes. And we might, due to laziness, ignorance or quiet resistance, fall into the unfortunate habit of doing not a millimetre more than instructed.
At the heart of compliance is mistrust. Like working with a bad subcontractor, when a counterpart can not be trusted the relationship tends toward dispute and micro-management and it gets expensive, time consuming and acrimonious for all. It is right to mistrust some people sometimes – but regulators sometimes give the impression they mistrust whole industries and the public all the time.
When there can be trust, better and freer and more productive relationships can develop and that can yield an important commodity; confidence. The heart of confidence is trust. Counterparties to a trusting relationship can more freely cooperate and within reason let each other get on with business in their own way. This has to be more efficient and productive. So how can we truly build more confidence and sensible, genuine trust regarding safety?
Can OHS regulation be built on the premise of inspiring and building trusting relationships for the majority? And when someone spoils the trust can the same regulation ramp up the micro-management and cost?
When we can get past the concept of just compliance; what the more enlightened regulators really seem to want; what the public, the employers and workers really want is “CONFIDENCE”. We are too accustomed to getting it through just compliance.
Regulators want to be confident that plant providers will provide the safest plant and that businesses and people use the safest practices. And they’d like to be confident that they all keep improving. Wouldn’t it be great to have that trust without having to check so often that people are complying? Or to flip that thought, given a regulator’s limited resources, wouldn’t it be great if they could maximise the safety bang for buck?
We all want to have more confidence that everyone we rely on for goods and services and safety are doing all they can practically do to maximise safety. We want others to go beyond mere compliance and we want them to maximise safety but we also don’t want it to cost too much. And we’d like to be more confident that we ourselves are doing all we can practically do to maximise safety.
We’d be naïve not to recognise there will be some that can not be inspired to do better let alone be trusted to do enough – and for them, harsh and costly compliance regimes that fairly contain or return their externalisations would be appropriate.
Confidence is the real outcome. Compliance is only the superficial part of it.
Compliance is a limited, often defensive reaction to an external prompt. Confidence building on the other hand involves reaction to external prompts but the response is less limited and is inherently proactive. It also responds to internal prompts. What habit is more productive and inspiring; defending our safety or celebrating and promoting our safety? Safety should not degenerate into a marketing exercise but it could better harness the part of the human psyche that makes us proud and proactive as well as reactive.
So instead of a culture that causes us to ask limited and less productive questions such as: “Have you complied?” I’d like to see regulation and practice that lay foundations for a culture that cause us all to ask more inspiring questions that people may actually go out of their way to answer well; “How can you make us more confident in your safety?”
That alternate culture, or to use a fancier word, paradigm, which incorporates and goes beyond compliance could be called “confidence assurance”.