Regulating Occupations: what we know, what we don’t know

An interesting report on Regulating Occupations from UKCES has just been published.  It surveys a vast field looking at licensing, voluntary accreditation and other approaches to regulating the professions and a vast range of more mundane occupations across Europe and North America.  The conclusions are along these lines:

“The overall conclusions from the US studies on the impact of licensing are that, in general, occupational licensing increases the wage of licensed workers, reduces employment growth and raises the price of goods or services but without overall improvements in the quality of service or product offered. The magnitude of the effects vary by occupation and location.”

The position is similar but more uncertain for Europe.  The key finding is the general lack of research and understanding about the impacts of licensing and other matters on the quality of professional and other occupation’s services.  This is quite a worrying, if unsurprising, finding if one considers the legal education review and debates such as the future regulation of will-writing.  Without such evidence – how will they take their decisions?

Regulators have relied on a set of assumptions about what works that are either untested or weakly tested: self-regulation is better than external regulation; principles work better than rules; training improves quality (sufficiently to be worth the cost); CPD aids competence; and so on.  There is a general absence across most professions (starting to be redressed in accountancy and medicine) of auditing or ‘work product testing’ which might begin to demonstrate what works.  That is, there is a general absence of understanding what levels of quality are actually delivered by professions and occupations.

Quite a bit of work has in fact been done in legal aid, by myself and colleagues, which questions whether benefits attributable to professional qualification show up in the quality of the work they do.  Broadly the answer appears to be have been no; but this work has largely been confined to low level legal aid work: a smallish (and shrinking) section of the market for legal services.  Further research on the quality of advocacy by barristers and solicitors and the quality of will writing also poses questions for the assumptions that professions deliver on their promise of competence.  These last two pieces of research (I was involved in the former) are however small in scale.

It follows that there is very little research on what improves the quality of work delivered by occupations or professions.  Specialisation has been identified as important: but defining specialisation robustly and appropriately in a way that balances cost, quality and access to justice is not as easy as it may seem.  I have advocated an approach that specialisation should be set to a significantly more demanding standard but it should be voluntary, for instance.   We could debate this but no one really knows whether it is right or wrong – there is simply insufficient evidence.  On reason is because the professions’ specialist accreditation programmes have always been negotiated rather than tested.  Professional regulation has always been a political, not an evidence based process.   Settlements about rules and enforcement regimes reflect professional power relations.  The knowledge deficits about what works and doesn’t work in the promotion of quality in occupations and professions is one which needs far greater attention than it has hitherto garnered.

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