Is it time to self-disrupt?

In May, the Toronto Star published “Medical Disorder,” an extensive three-part series investigating the lack of transparency around doctors’ disciplinary histories at several Canadian physicians’ colleges. The investigation looked at doctors licensed to practise in both Canadian and US jurisdictions and found several who, after being disciplined by a US regulator, were able to establish Canadian practices with no hint of their US disciplinary history showing up in their Canadian licensing body’s practice profiles. While some of these doctors’ offenses were serious— including sexual assault of patients, drug trafficking and serious medical errors—the Canadian regulators’ privacy rules ensured this information was not made public, even though it was available to them.

The articles illuminate a growing distrust by the public in the perceived ability—and will—of Canadian professional regulators to fulfil their primary mandate of protecting the public interest.

Much of the recent attention has been paid to medical regulators—doctors, nurses, pharmacists, chiropractors, etc.—which makes sense given these professions’ up-close-and-personal touchpoints with the public, and the life and death consequences of their mistakes and ethical lapses. But non-medical professions have also received uncomfortable scrutiny from both the public and governments for perceptions that perhaps they’re not taking the privilege of self-regulation as seriously as they should. Consider recent examples:

  • A 2014 Toronto Star investigation of the Law Society of Upper Canada suggested the regulator often failed to report crimes committed by lawyers who had been sanctioned by the law society for criminal offenses, including fraud, theft and forgery, to the police.
  • The Ontario government’s removal of new home warranty corporation Tarion’s regulatory oversight of the province’s home builders.
  • And, of course, the Quebec government placing l’Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec—Quebec’s engineering regulator—under trusteeship in 2014 after losing confidence in the body’s capacity to regulate the profession.

While these, and other, regulators have come under fire for different reasons, the questions they raise among the public and governments ultimately boils down to their effectiveness at regulating their own to protect the public.

And they raise questions about all self-regulated professions: Who are they protecting? The public or themselves?

PEO AT THE CROSSROADS

Fortunately, and for now, the engineering profession in Ontario has largely avoided such scrutiny but that does not mean we are immune to it. The aforementioned example of Quebec’s engineering regulator confirms this.

Our saving grace is that, unlike medical professionals or lawyers, engineers typically don’t have the same kind of public touchpoints that could lead to charges of incompetence or ethical breaches by consumers. An engineer is not exposed to the same kind of risk of being accused of professional misconduct as, say, a doctor carrying out a physical exam on a patient, or a lawyer holding clients’ money in trust.

But after almost 100 years in this role, should we consider measuring our regulatory performance to ensure we’re maintaining our effectiveness in an environment that’s effectively undergoing a technology-based Fourth Industrial Revolution (largely driven by engineers!)? Should we be disrupting ourselves internally, while the heat is off, before we’re disrupted externally like many other regulators have already experienced? I believe we should. We must.

The good news is that we’re on the right track, especially with recent changes to the Professional Engineers Act that do much to satisfy the public’s growing demands for greater transparency by regulators. These changes include things like making licence holders’ disciplinary histories public on the PEO website; allowing the public to obtain copies of evidence in proceedings before PEO’s Discipline Committee; allowing the registrar to forward information, where there is a public safety concern, to appropriate regulators for further investigation or actions under that organization’s jurisdiction; and confirming PEO’s continued jurisdiction over suspended, cancelled and revoked licence holders.

Thanks to a member submission at the 2017 Annual General Meeting, PEO now has a Governance Working Group Phase 1 charged with evaluating if our current governance structure effectively serves the public interest, as well as evaluating potential risks of losing our self-regulatory status and relevancy as a licensed profession, among other things.

This is an excellent first step. However, undertaking a thorough regulatory performance review will help us determine if we’re effectively carrying out our primary objects as set out in the Professional Engineers Act: regulating the profession by establishing, maintaining and developing standards of knowledge, qualification, practice and ethics. And if we’re falling short in any way, a review will guide us to where we should be channeling resources to ensure we’re meeting and exceeding our regulatory requirements. I believe a review would be even stronger if we sought outside help from a regulatory performance expert who would provide an unbiased appraisal of our processes. We would not be leading the pack on this front, as many regulators in Ontario and Canada have already completed a performance review like this or are in the process of doing so. We owe it to the public, the profession and future engineers to step back to reflect on our role, measure our effectiveness and make course corrections where necessary. It can only make for a stronger profession and more credible, relevant designations that are trusted and respected by the public.

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