“Covid has accelerated the move to online”: How the new normal is changing UK regulation

As part of a series of roundtable discussions, Civil Service World and Hitachi Solutions examined the ways in which the pandemic has changed how regulators work and the sectors they oversee. Geoffrey Lyons reports
“Covid has accelerated the move to online”: How the new normal is changing UK regulation

By Geoffrey Lyons

02 Oct 2020

Senior representatives from the UK’s leading regulators gathered for a virtual roundtable to discuss how regulatory bodies are coping with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. The roundtable, hosted by Civil Service World in partnership with Hitachi Solutions, was attended by leaders from about a dozen different watchdogs, all of whom are facing major challenges adapting to a rapidly changing regulatory landscape.

Participants were unanimous in their view that Covid has radically transformed the sector. “We keep talking about the ‘new normal’ but I’m not sure we’ve even settled into that yet,” said Geyv Kathoke, Interim Head of Data at The Pensions Regulator. Tim Kidd, Head of Public Sector at Hitachi Solutions, said the pandemic was “testing every organisation’s operational model." “We’re seeing how it has made some organisations spring into a transformational role overnight, implementing and adopting new technologies and practices,” he said

Yet despite having to make such quick changes, many regulators seemed to have adjusted well to new ways of working. Some, such as the Food Standards Agency, already had work-from-home policies in place before lockdown measures were introduced. “We already had a major programme that created the opportunity for people to work from home, and all of our big meetings were already held online,” said Paul Morrison, the agency’s Director of Strategy, Legal, Communications and Governance. Victoria Howes, Head of Strategy at the Care Quality Commission, said three quarters of the commission’s staff had been working from home before lockdown, and Kathoke said many at The Pensions Regulator, including himself, were accustomed to working from home two days a week.

The more difficult adjustment for regulators has instead been a shift in the demand for their services. Some are facing swelling workloads, such as the Fundraising Regulator, which Chief Executive Gerald Oppenheim said has recently been handling more complaints from the public than ever before in its existence. The Gambling Commission, which regulates gambling and gaming law, has also had to ramp up its activities. “Covid has accelerated the move to online gambling by about three years,” said Brad Enright, the commission’s Director of Strategy. To contextualise how challenging that shift has been for the commission, Enright added that it has a budget of only £20m to regulate an industry worth an estimated £14bn.

Other regulators have had the opposite problem. Ofsted, for example, wasn’t able to continue its inspections programme once schools closed, so it needed to find work for some of its staff. “One of the big challenges for us was getting our staff seconded to the Department of Health, the Department for Work and Pensions, and quite a lot of local authorities,” said Tom Zebedee, Ofsted’s Chief Technology Officer. Steven Steer, Head of Data at Ofgem, said that lockdown restrictions on movement had created  logistical concerns for the regulator around things like how people would top up their pre-payment meters. “It’s all caused a bit of a shuffling and changing of workloads,” he said. “It’s created a lot of complexity.”

But it’s not just workloads that are changing — the very nature of regulatory work is being transformed by a new wave of digitisation brought on by the pandemic. As more of the world moves online, some regulators are forced to rethink how they operate. “A lot of the food businesses that we inspect have pivoted almost immediately into the online space and making online offerings,” said Morrison of the Food Standards Agency. “The whole digital world has become far more critical.” Morrison said his agency already knew this was coming, but that Covid has accelerated the need to think differently. “It leaves us with a set of challenges because the way we normally conduct business is to go in and inspect buildings.”

On-site inspections are also the bread and butter of the Care Quality Commission, but CQC’s Howe said fewer visits and fewer inspections mean the commission is moving into a more supportive role. “Recently we’ve started up visits again, but on a very different basis from previously,” Howe said. “We’re really clear that we are not going back to our old way of working. This is a new way.”

So while regulators have adapted well to new working methods brought on by the pandemic, the full effects of digitisation are still being realised. Ofgem’s Steer went so far as to say that technology is changing the institutional design of regulatory bodies. “There’s always been a structural question around the nature of how regulation is conducted, but technology is certainly changing how we ask it,” he said.

Richard Fisher from Microsoft said "what was hugely encouraging was seeing how organisations were using technology in different ways and at pace to adopt to a new normal. Well done and keep moving forward."

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