With new technologies, climate change and a global pandemic, the world is changing faster than ever, so our approach as Civil Servants and Regulators to tackling challenges, must also change.
I am the first to admit that regulation is not often considered an exciting topic at most dinner parties – or anywhere else.
Regulation has long suffered with an image problem for being boring, bureaucratic and unnecessary. And though this can sometimes be true, regulation has a vital role to play. It improves our everyday lives – protecting consumers, citizens and businesses.
Regulation is one of the key levers of government (alongside tax and spending) that we have our disposal to achieve policy objectives.
It spans essentially any rule set by the government or regulators, whether through guidance, codes of practice, licensing requirements or legislation. And those of us in the Better Regulation Executive have made it our life mission to make regulation, well… better!
To most people, regulation is rarely associated with promoting innovation. But actually, it is the gatekeeper of the market, determining which products and services are allowed to reach consumers and which won’t make it.
Regulation, when done right, can actually stimulate new ideas, cut investment risk and build consumer confidence in new innovations.
It does this by providing clarity for businesses on the outcomes that the government and society expect, providing confidence for consumers around safety.
Think about the extraordinary speed which COVID vaccinations were both developed and approved in the UK. Crucial to this breakthrough was the role played by our Medicines and Healthcare product Regulatory Agency (MHRA) adopting an agile approach, working with industry to rigorously test new vaccines through a ‘rolling review’ of evidence from clinical trials on an ongoing basis.
This condensed the time taken to approve vaccines, whilst still ensuring all the usual steps and expected standards of safety, quality and effectiveness were met. It provided us with access to vital vaccines as soon as possible whilst ensuring patient safety.
This more agile approach to regulation is the future, especially in a world where innovation is happening at a scale, speed and complexity often dubbed the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’.
New technologies and innovations often don’t fit hand in hand with existing regulatory frameworks which can be notoriously prescriptive. The risk is that imposing detailed requirements based on current technologies can lock out innovation.
We, as policy-makers, need to strive to make our approach to regulation more agile. This means taking a more future-facing, outcome-focused, experimental, responsive, collaborative and global approach to how we develop it. And the Better Regulation Executive has set out a world-leading vision for how we can achieve more innovation-friendly regulation in a White Paper.
But domestic regulatory reform alone can only get us so far. Many new technologies and innovations are truly global in terms of their market and impact.
That is why the UK spearheaded the creation of the Agile Nations, a forum with six other nations, to collaborate on experimental regulatory approaches to new technologies. This paves the way for countries to co-operate in helping innovators navigate each other’s rules, test new ideas with regulators and scale them across global markets.
Here in the UK, Departments and regulators are already leading the way trialling new approaches to regulation.
This is demonstrated by UK policy-makers recently being named among the top 50 global public sector leaders, the ‘Agile 50’, who have pioneered an agile approach to regulation. To celebrate their achievement, and provide some inspiration, we’ve interviewed some of the winners.
Iain Forbes, Head of the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles
Iain has pioneered an outcome-focused regulatory approach to self-driving vehicles which can be updated as technology evolves. This regulatory approach supports the deployment of vehicles in the real world safely and has been emulated by other countries.
It is very tough to design a regulatory framework for technology which doesn’t yet exist! We try to start from a good sense of the outcomes we are trying to achieve, think carefully about where early action is needed to set a direction, and engage widely to ensure we aren’t inadvertently stifling innovation by closing off options.
Emma Tunley, Policy Manager at the Solicitors Regulation Authority
Emma is responsible for Solicitors Regulation Authority Innovate, a programme to help legal service providers develop their businesses to support new types of tech – including by developing adaptive regulation for the adoption of LawTech.
The adoption of ‘LawTech’ in the legal service market is at an early stage. Agile regulation is therefore a key principle for how we work. It means we regulate in a way to not hinder innovation in order to make way for the disrupters.
Tim Johnson, Policy Director at the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA)
Tim established a new capability at the CAA to support innovators in bringing new products safely to market, including creating new mechanisms for regulators to engage with innovators such as drone operators. This included a new advisory service for innovators; a new regulatory ‘sandbox’ to allow testing; and a regulatory lab which identifies regulatory barriers to innovations like flying taxis.
Start with a plan, try it, learn, adapt and start the cycle again. You need to actively engage with a wide range of stakeholders – any single stakeholder will rarely have the complete answer, including the regulator. A culture of continuous learning is vital, along with accepting accept that the plan won’t always workout as you intended.