Raising the regulatory bar

A veteran volunteer with PEO’s Complaints Committee issues a challenge to fellow engineers to consider what it means to be a professional and look for new ways for the profession to maintain public confidence.

Tony Cecutti, P.Eng., reflected on his 19 years of experience with PEO’s Complaints Committee (COC) in a recent series of talks with Engineering Dimensions. A former chair of the COC, Cecutti has since been succeeded by Chris Roney, P.Eng., BDS, FEC, past president of Engineers Canada and long-time PEO volunteer.

The COC, which investigates complaints received against licence and certificate of authorization holders, is mandated by sections 23 and 24 of the Professional Engineers Act. Working closely with PEO staff who investigate complaints, COC volunteers consider complaints received and determine if there is need to pass them onto the Discipline Committee for further action.

What follows are Cecutti’s concerns and aspirations for the engineering profession, from a COC member’s perspective, as PEO seeks to ward off potential threats to self-regulation.

My concerns for the public’s loss of confidence in us come from a few key observations. One factor is the number of complaints against members of PEO has not substantially changed in many years. While it is conceivable to see this as a strong vote of confidence in our members, I believe we need to be more concerned.

I have seen the growth of complaints in other regulated professions, and in the public sector in general, and our statistics are inconsistent with the growing expectations of the public.

Another factor is that I have seen the public’s tolerance for improper behaviour diminish. The public expects licensed professionals to behave and perform at a higher standard than non-licensed practitioners.

In recent years, I have seen less patience for what the public considers immoral and unethical behaviour. We have allowed non-practising members to represent themselves as professional engineers, and this confuses the public. We have seen numerous complaints related to the public being concerned with the ethical and moral behaviour of non-practising engineers who happen to have a licence and use the title P.Eng. after their names. I fail to understand why our association would allow non-practising members to use the title P.Eng. for any other purpose than engineering work or opinions.

A third factor is that our level of discipline appears to be producing less-than-satisfactory responses from the public. We need to consider that PEO does not regulate unethical behaviour, and we need to compare the response to our members’ transgressions in the limited forms of discipline issued to the forms of discipline issued by other regulated professions.

These three factors alone, in my opinion, are leading to a public that views PEO and our regulatory role as somewhat irrelevant. I believe when we stop listening to the public, we lose our understanding of the value an engineering licence should have. If a complaint does not result in serious consequences, and if the association sees it can hand out licences to people who do not even practise engineering, then why should it matter to the public?

The membership should not be concerned with the response from our complaints process to matters some people might categorize as frivolous. That word does not exist in our legislation or our approach to complaints. All complaints are taken seriously, and this is fundamentally and inherently essential in a self-regulatory environment. Members should be confident the right outcome will always prevail.

The COC has modified its processes so complaints founded on inadequate information or not related to the practice of engineering are brought to a point of decision much more efficiently than in the past. We believe a complained-against member has an expectation of fairness and expediency. Similarly, our approach assumes every complainant believes there is merit to their complaint. When a decision goes against the complainant, we believe they have a right to an adequate explanation of the reasons for our decision. A clear and reasonable explanation is extremely important in providing confidence that we take our regulatory role seriously and manage it responsibly.

We are seeing substantive evidence our association is relying on other regulatory and legal processes to resolve concerns of professional behaviour. I believe the chief building officials in Ontario, for example, find our complaints and discipline processes ineffective and not timely. In the interest of protecting the public from unsafe buildings, they use tools like third-party reviews and orders to comply, which are appropriate given their role. Unfortunately, they have difficulty relying on our regulatory processes to determine if a licensed practitioner is competent, has exercised an appropriate level of continuing education and if they are, in fact, practising out of scope.

There is little a building official can do to ensure a questionable practitioner is not out in another municipality performing services that are not within their capabilities or experience. Certainly, we have seen many complaints over the years related to practising out of scope. I believe the public expects the association to hold its members to the highest standards expected of professionals, and that we would not tolerate performance that is reasonably expected of people performing work in unregulated areas, such as technology and construction.

The data available from PEO’s Practice Evaluation and Knowledge (PEAK) program could be helpful to our regulatory committee and to the public. It would be helpful to the public if they could reference an engineer’s qualifications against the work they are viewing.

The PEAK program affords an opportunity to provide some balance to conflicting opinions that may surface from time to time. From a regulatory perspective, it is possible a PEAK record could assist the COC to alleviate concerns that a member may be practising out of scope. For example, we have reviewed files where our starting point is a record from a university and we observe evidence of a practitioner, after 30 years, performing work in an area that is totally unrelated to their original area of study. It is not beyond reason to learn, through consultation with the member, that they could have completed exhaustive training and professional development to adopt this new area of practice. Having placed this record in a publicly available manner might have avoided the complaint in the first place and certainly could assist a regulator in reviewing a practice question, which may result in more expeditious management of the complaint.

Public expectations are growing regarding the responsibility of all professionals, not just engineers. From the nature of the complaints received, it seems the public is demonstrating a high expectation for ethical standards. We must understand, as professional engineers, what it means to the public when we represent ourselves as professionals. I don’t think we are taking our role seriously enough. When I look at some of the other regulated professions and some of the discipline they hand out for similar infractions, it raises concerns for me that we are potentially inviting a loss of confidence.

I have considered these concerns and suggest the following areas require focus, and I invite practising members to reflect on their role as a licensed practitioner with these discussion points:

  • We should reflect on the definition of professional misconduct and regularly compare ourselves to other regulated professions and the level of discipline that is appropriate under similar circumstances. Many professions have stronger connections between ethics and breaches of their act that would constitute professional misconduct and appear to have more significant and serious consequences 
    for acknowledged breaches of their act and regulations;
  • We should consider whether voluntary compliance with PEAK is adequate. In the case of building officials lacking confidence in engineers’ opinions, they would benefit from the ability to rely on PEO for assurance that members are competent and practising within their scope of training;
  • We should consider whether the mandate and financial investment in our volunteers is focused adequately on our core regulatory purpose. The Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE) was created for member advocacy. Although a strong relationship with OSPE is vital to our mutual success, PEO cannot put member services ahead of our obligation to regulate effectively. It appears a part of PEO is still focused on member services and not regulation. If the consequence is a reluctance to raise rates or a disproportionate allowance for member services, there is a higher probability we will not manage our regulatory duties effectively; and
  • Practising engineering through a self-regulating licence is a privilege granted by the province. There is no inherent right to member services through this licence. We retain the privilege of self-regulation only by ensuring public confidence. We should invest more time and energy to ensuring the public recognizes and supports the value of our licence and trusts the members who hold that licence. In my opinion, when we allow members to hold a licence with no intent to practise engineering, we are confusing the public about the purpose of the licence. No other regulated profession that I am aware of would issue a licence or allow a person to continue to hold a licence when they are not practising within that profession. 

Tony Cecutti, P.Eng., FEC, is general manager of growth and infrastructure, City of Sudbury, and has been a PEO volunteer since 1992.