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The Gentleman and the Rat – a cautionary tale of unintended consequence

Christine Braithwaite, the Authority's Director of Standards and Policy, during a recent trip to Quebec ponders on where the feel-good factor has gone in regulation and how sometimes trying to do the right thing can lead to unintended consequences, often having the opposite effect rather than the desired outcome.


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Christine Braithwaite with Julie de Gongre, Director of Legal Affairs, Conseil inter-professionel du Quebec

As I approached Quebec City from the air, I noticed how prettily it is laid out. Colourful, oblong strips of land, carefully aligned to the banks of the St Lawrence river. Houses studded like seashells, pressed into the land in decorative patterns. It reinforced again, despite our doing essentially similar things, how differently we all arrange our affairs. The way we do this largely reflects our history and our values. 

I was in Quebec City to present our paper Rethinking regulation, at the kind invitation of the Conseil inter-professionel du Quebec. Many Quebecois, like us, see that the world is changing and regulation is increasingly out of step. 

Our systems of professional regulation date back to the medieval period. To the time when – hopefully honest – tradesmen sought to carve out niche areas of the health market, developing discrete bodies of knowledge, language and an aura of mystique. Ambitious, desiring to climb the social ladder, they agreed with the state that they would abide by gentleman-like codes, which bound their behaviour and protected the public from ‘the others’ – whom they titled charlatans and quacks. It was a trade from which both sides gained. The purchaser gained safety through reliance on the professionals’ collective sense of gentlemanly honour. The trader gained pride, gentleman-like status and income. Both might feel good about their experience.

We can choose to regulate in a way that reinforces our values – or allow regulation to dominate them. What we regulate – and the way in which we do it does more than just control the ‘thing’ we wish to contain. It shapes the way it feels to live our lives too.

Take driving. I used to drive from north to south on open roads, with no one knowing I had left, where I was going or had passed through. I self-regulated my speed without mishap. Driving felt free and fun. Now, it feels stress-laden, pressured, constantly regulating speed up and down at the behest of signs seemingly without reason. I am no less law-abiding now than I was then – no more in need of being controlled. The consequence of this change is that I no longer notice my wider surroundings and I don’t enjoy the experience.

Take-off in an aeroplane is still exhilarating, but the experience through airport controls is dire. I am convinced I must be fitted with hidden robotic parts the number of times I apparently trigger the ‘selected at random’ alarm and my body is subjected to the scanner. Occasionally courteous, mostly humourless and bored, staff seem to view me with suspicion and it doesn’t feel good. It’s not me, I am told that ‘they’ seek to control it is ‘the others’ but nonetheless the quality of my life is diminished by the way in which we have chosen to regulate these things. I understand this security is meant to protect us from harm. My concern is that the way in which we try to regulate it exposes us to harm of a different kind and diminishes our lives. We need to think about that. 

During my talk in Quebec, I told a story about rats. A woman missionary in about 1940 wrote home about an outbreak of bubonic plague in a Chinese town. To control it, the authorities decreed that citizens could only collect their ration book if they produced a dead rat. The purpose of the regulation was to reduce the number of rats. Would you be keen on catching and killing a rat that might be infected with plague, even if you were hungry? The unintended consequence of this regulation was that people began to breed rats, so increasing rather than decreasing the population. I read recently that there are still traces of the plague to be found. 

To be successful, we must work with the grain of positive human psychology and emotion, not against it. We must motivate – not demotivate. Regulation is losing sight of the ‘trade’ that was understood by our forebears to be an important incentive. If we want to achieve a successful outcome, we need both those it is meant to protect and those it regulates to feel reasonably good about it.