Is regulation becoming the new religion?


In whatever field you care to mention – whether it is education, services or business – employers and organisations are checking up on us as never before.

Recently my car broke down in Glastonbury, so I called the AA. Out came the AA repair person, who did a great job, but he then asked me to rate the service he had provided on a tablet, by clicking on a happy face, sad face, or categories in between. Not only that, I got a follow up phone call asking me whether he had done a good job. Why couldn’t the AA just let me call to complain I there had been a problem? This all creates so much pressure on working people.

Last time I went to my GP surgery there was a plastic plinth asking me to rate my experience, with the happy and sad faces again. I tried to type in a message saying “Stop checking up on people, the pressure on staff must be intolerable”, but the message box vanished! On the back of many lorries there is a number to call, inviting us to rate the lorry driver’s performance – and on it goes. And, in my experience, when performance-related pay is introduced in a company the spirit of collegiality can quickly turn into one of competitiveness and dissatisfaction.

Scale up the assessment process up and we have things like nationwide OFSTED inspections, which put enormous pressures on teachers and can have more serious, unintended, consequences. The OFSTED inspection process means that schools tend to focus on the children who are able to deliver the “70% of pupils with 5 A-C grades at GCSE” for the benefit of the league tables, leaving the less able children, who actually need the most help, “buried in lower sets” where they may get little help, as they are never really going to “count”. If there were no league tables, resources and time could be more evenly shared across pupils. There is also some evidence that children born in the summer months can quickly fall behind in the primary school setting system.

And while the inspection of health and social care facilities such as care homes is, admittedly, essential, such inspections do place a huge burden on staff. A physiotherapist I know also tells me she spends 40% of her time on paperwork, which she would rather spend on treating patients. Isn’t this a waste of time and skills too? Couldn’t we cut back on some of the paperwork, to relieve the stress on health professionals?

Finally, we have the controversial four-hour target for waits in A&E. As long as those patients who need to be seen urgently in A&E are seen as quickly as possible, what does it matter if others have to wait 5-6 hours? A&E is for really unwell people and trying to see everyone within four hours can distort priorities and place an additional burden on already overstretched staff.

As a society we have become obsessed with checking, assessing, rating and ranking people and systems. We no longer simply trust, encourage or manage people well, so they will to do a good job. Yes, in some cases, where the care of vulnerable people is concerned, monitoring is essential, but overall it can make for an unforgiving academic and working environment and lead to skewed decision-making. People are not valued for who they are and what they are doing, but instead assessed against a set of targets, so the numbers can be crunched and a performance table produced. At its worst, this process can dehumanise us all.

* Judy Abel has worked in the health policy field for around 15 years, including at the British Medical Association, for the All-Party Parliamentary Health Group, and in policy roles at Asthma UK, the Neurological Alliance and Versus Arthritis until the end of 2021. She was also the Constituency Office Manager and Senior Caseworker for former Lib Dem MP, Sir Simon Hughes from 2012 to 2014. All views are her own.

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  • Tsar Nicholas 9th Mar '16 - 9:45am

    Brilliant article – my only complaint is that there’s no happy face to touch.

  • I’ve got to admit I never respond unless the service is really bad.

  • nigel hunter 9th Mar '16 - 10:02am

    This monitoring puts pressure on people ,always pushing. This leads to stress and other problems. Everybody has to achieve ‘aspire’ to obtain targets. Are we going to end up like robots with regular periods on the psychiatric doctors couch.

  • Stephen Way 9th Mar '16 - 10:12am

    I wouldn’t conflate the requests for positive feedback with the overly regulated areas such as education or indeed performance related pay.

    As an employer we offer those who commission our services and the end user chance to provide feedback once the process is finished. Using this we gain a far better picture of how we are doing as a company and it has led to a number of small improvements. We always had the information from complaints, but this was by its very nature generally totally negative. The information we now gain allows us to demonstrate to staff that their efforts are appreciated in the vast number of cases and to temper the tiny percentage of complaints with examples of good practice.

    I would urge against the use of any subjective feedback in any performance related pay – as sometimes as mere mortal humans we are too busy to praise someone yet always seem to find the time to complain.

  • Helen Tedcastle 9th Mar '16 - 12:39pm

    Great article by Judy Abel.

    ‘ And, in my experience, when performance-related pay is introduced in a company the spirit of collegiality can quickly turn into one of competitiveness and dissatisfaction.

    Scale up the assessment process up and we have things like nationwide OFSTED inspections, which put enormous pressures on teachers and can have more serious, unintended, consequences. ‘

    Isn’t it a great pity that the Lib Dems in coalition allowed through performance-related pay for teachers,in the teeth of evidence that it doesn’t work, and helped to undermine local democracy and co-operation between schools, by fast forwarding academy chains run by carpet magnates and of course cheer-leading the introduction of free schools.

    The introduction of the EBac designed for the most academic children has only served to create a two-tier subject system, devaluing creative arts, design technology subjects and the potential of children who thrive with a mixed or broader range of GCSEs.

    All this has only served to fragment the school system and create an even greater competitive environment based on league tables. This is the Tory way of promoting ‘rigour’ – the hard facts, sink or swim route. No doubt some people will thrive. Many will fail and take that sense of failure at school into adulthood and parenthood.

    Our record is not good at education so lamentation probably comes a bit late, though welcome.

  • Geoffrey Payne 9th Mar '16 - 1:04pm

    As liberals I believe we should be neutral in this debate. There is good regulation and bad regulation. In the UK I think the main problem is the religion of deregulation or light touch regulation. A stark example of course is the economic crash in 2008 caused in part by light touch regulation. The phone hacking scandal is another example.
    So we should judge each case by it’s merits and not be ideologically predisposed to favour more or less regulation. The evidence of what works comes first.

  • There is some confusion, as Stephen Way points out concerning feedback.
    Looking just at feedback, I was in a shop yesterday and had a customer satisfaction interview, in the discussion we noted that in general people tend to only get motivated to provide feedback when things go wrong, just as Glenn notes. Which does at times miss the point, because if someone is doing something right then customer-focused businesses like to know so that they can provide encouragement and specific positive feedback to staff. I think one of the reasons why we are increasingly seeing feedback requests is that we are being re-educated to give feedback, not just when we have reason to complain.

    If you want to look at how assessing complaints only feedback can lead to the creation of a massively distorted viewpoint, I suggest you need only to look at the OFCOM regular customer complaints reports, which from the headlines and Internet forums you could be forgiven for not knowing that complaints are down to the 1~4 per 10,000 subscribers and not the 10~20 per 100 subscribers.

  • David Evershed 9th Mar '16 - 3:39pm

    What gets measured gets done.

    Just make sure you get the right measures.

  • I think this also encourages a race to the bottom of sorts.

    I volunteer with local charities – so vulnerable people – and noted a shift from quite detailed feedback (sometimes hard to hear) to more simplistic (funder friendly) questionnaires as that is what others were doing (and we did not want to look objectively worse)!

  • My solution when asked for feedback on service providers is to give the individuals concerned top marks. Any problems are very likely to be the fault of management (poor training and poor phone line for the last help line I called) not the poor person answering. Garbage in creates garbage out making that an easy way to sabotage a rotten approach.

  • Thanks for the very interesting feedback. Sorry I couldn’t reply sooner – just got back from work. I think all the points raised are valid. The feedback we get sometimes depends on the questions we ask and, as D McKay says, proper feedback itself can be distorted when simplistic, guided questions are asked.

    I agree David that measurement can lead to action, but my point it it can be the wrong action when for example league tables leave some children stranded because they don’t ‘count’. Measurement can be divisive too. As you say we have to get the measures right, but too often, as Roland comments, people generally tend to give more feedback when they are dissatisfied so that automatically weights thing in favour of the negative.

    I think these nuances should actually affect policy. We need to be far more discerning about the targets set by pubic bodies so they are not just tick-box exercises that distort priorities. I think that is very different form a private company asking for feedback on its services where constructive criticism or comments may be helpful as Stephen points out.

    I think the complexities are too many to capture in a short article, but as a society I still think we are becoming obsessed with rating and ranking things. Going back to the AA man I told him he had done a great job and thanked him very much. I just felt it was a bit humiliating for him to have to ask me to ‘rank’ him while he is looking on.

    Thanks for the great comments Tsar Nicholas and Helen.

  • Stephen Booth 10th Mar '16 - 4:12pm

    Spot on. So many of these surveys a
    Devised by marketers and aimed at delivering answers that can then be exploited for promotional purposes.

  • @Thanks Stephen. Yes, my whole theme is that organisations and service providers often want to take the easy way out and rate things for their convenience. Life is more nuanced than that and by reducing everything to targets, rankings and tick-box exercises we over-simplify things. Some people get lost in that process and it places an enormous professional and psychological burden on people.

    Ratings and rankings have often taken the place of good management

  • Richard Underhill 9th Apr '16 - 4:20pm

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