Technology and Regulatory Oversight

  • April 25, 2023
  • Lisa Picotte-Li

Technology and Regulatory Oversight

In the aftermath of extreme weather events like floods and fires, there is momentum to build back quickly. When people and communities are displaced, repairs in affected areas become the priority once immediate risks are addressed. Before returning to a site, however, there may still be latent hazards.

Activities such as restoring services to electrical systems or damaged equipment may pose risks like electrical shock, carbon monoxide, and fire. The urgency to repair the damage can strain traditional regulatory services, such as safety inspections, and can result in bottlenecks and delay. Using technology to enhance accessibility, particularly tools like machine learning and remote assessments, can improve regulatory oversight by allocating resources in a structured way.

Leveraging technology to create greater value, however, requires a shift in thinking about regulatory oversight. Gone are the days of enough resources and time to monitor every aspect of compliance. The reality of any quality control program is that regulation and policy rarely move at the pace of crisis. To keep up with what feels like regularly recurring climate disasters, innovative regulatory tools are needed along with the following paradigm shifts.

1.     Overseeing bodies cannot see everything. While seemingly simplistic and straightforward, there is a tendency to expect regulators to catch and punish all poor performing actors. But this is not possible.

For instance, even if a police officer was situated in every moving vehicle, there would still be motorists who travel at excessive speeds. There would be fewer speeders than there are today, but it would raise the question of whether the costs of such a regulatory regime are worth the (eventually marginal) benefits. Spot checks of speeders are useful for changing behaviour, but what is the appropriate level of resourcing while also optimizing efficiency?

2.     Accepting that overseeing bodies cannot be everywhere at once, risk and reliance become inextricable foundations for effective oversight. In the example above, the cost of having a police officer in every moving vehicle would not generally be acceptable. In contrast, it would be expected that officers are dispatched to areas that have an elevated risk related to speeding. The balance is in how much resources can be expended on quality control versus the confidence that most motorists will abide by the speed limit.

Gaining a clear understanding of risk and behaviour fosters oversight based on reliance rather than control. This can then free up resources for potentially more impactful tools, like engagement and education.

3.     The effectiveness of innovative tools may be different from traditional measures. If online stores were compared to shopping malls in terms of the ability to try on clothes or sample foods, the online option would fail. But if outcome measures are tracked, then digital presence can be successful in a number of ways, such as having greater sales volumes or driving traffic to a brick-and-mortar store. Applying existing measures to new tools may limit their opportunities to be successful because they capture what is already known, not what the possibilities might be.

In the aftermath of extreme weather events, tools like machine learning and remote assessments can expedite repairs while still achieving safety outcomes. For example, it would be inappropriate resourcing to confirm every electrical panel is labeled before people are allowed to return to their homes. It would be prudent, however, to confirm all potential arc faults have been addressed.

By understanding the nature of risks through analysis of aggregated data, in-person resources can be dispatched to areas that have the highest potential hazards. A video call of an unlabeled electrical panel is much the same as an inspector visiting in person. But if an inspector is spared from having to visit in-person to confirm labeling, then they can spend more time looking after potential arc faults. Where risks are lower or within acceptable guardrails, leveraging tools like remote assessments can enable more higher value work while controlling costs, increasing efficiency, and getting people and communities back to safety, quickly.

Lisa Picotte-Li is the director of operations at a provincial safety regulator and adjudicates correction and discipline of federal inmates. The views are those of the author.

This article was originally published on BarTalk, which is produced by the British Columbia Branch of the Canadian Bar Association.