Australia is probably typical of the English speaking west in that it’s citizens are being buried in an avalanche of red tape. The litigious society meets the risk-averse society and the answer seems to be bureaucracy.
We have occupational health and safety (OH&S); a whole raft of accounting related to the goods and services tax (GST) which tracks every financial transaction from beginning to end in order to levy 10% on the outcome; intrusive council regulation; and business policy and procedures regimes which are designed to maximise control and limit legal liability. It takes enormous time and energy to put these systems in place, to manage the record keeping, and to enforce compliance.
It’s done to some extent with good intentions, and it can have some positive effects. There is a need to think through an organisation’s processes; to examine safety; to systematically keep records. This is balanced against the effort involved, but I think there are some other disadvantages as well.
Responsibility for decisions is transferred from the individual who is on the spot to the faceless committees and bureaucrats who have developed the regulations, checklists and policies. Sometimes the rules have been created with foresight and wisdom, and they prevent people acting in ways which might endanger others or they require useful records be kept. More often the rules are too general or restrictive to be helpful. They suffer from “top-downitis”, the idea that far away in time and space you can anticipate every situation and decide the best outcome.
It’s far better to expect good sense from the people who are on the scene, and insist that those people exercise their intelligence and judgement. The function of the “system” should be to support, educate, and guide those people to the best possible decisions. Rather than enforcement there should be review. Rather than pretending that people can be made perfectly safe, we should teach people to be careful.
I believe a far more productive approach is based on:
Goals: A clear explanation of the outcomes we are trying to achieve and the reasons they are important. This allows the decision makers – the people at the coalface rather than the bureaucrats – to prioritise and set direction, and to exercise imagination and creativity in finding solutions.
Education: The skills and information required to properly understand the situation and its ramifications, and evaluate consequences of actions. Information about similar situations and the strategies and decisions employed in the past.
Review: Cooperative recapitulation of this the strengths and weaknesses of this solution and evaluation of its effects.
I’ve worked in both a restaurant and a school in the last few years, and both these places have important health and safety concerns. But regulation is a blunt instrument, it cannot cover every eventuality. Teachers and chefs need good training, and there needs to be a system of review of their decisions, but it takes a thoughtful person on the spot to decide what’s the best approach to a child with mild Aspergers’ or a container of Hollandaise sauce.
If we have to put up signs “keep off the grass,” then there’s something badly wrong. If the grass is young and fragile people should have the sense and courtesy not to damage it without the threat of legal sanction. If the grass is wet people should walk carefully and accept the risk of slipping. If there isn’t a reason to keep off the grass, there’s one less rule to worry about. Treating people like children makes people child-like. Many of our bureaucrats and politicians seem more and more to have control and power issues which make them want to act like parents, but the consequence is that we’re being robbed of the chance to act like adults. It’s an inflexible system which doesn’t produce the best outcome for anyone.