Securing compliance?

The Stanford University website contains a list of the university’s ‘compliance offices and officers’. You may wish to note that there are 25 of these, ranging from ‘donor gift restrictions’ to ‘immigration’. And while most of us do not have this kind of wealth of compliance-focused structures, many universities nowadays find themselves almost overwhelmed with regulatory bureaucracy.

Of course it is important to maintain good practice, and areas such as health and safety, data protection, financial probity and so on should be the focus of vigilance, in universities as elsewhere. However, we have gradually been sucked into a compliance mentality that makes institutions risk averse, with people often concerned with covering their backs while grappling with the extensive paperwork.

Perhaps one of the chief problems is that many, like Stanford, see this as a matter of ‘compliance’. The main context is one of policing wrongdoing, rather than encouraging good practice. It may be time to look again at how standards are maintained and enhanced; the current system may not be the way to do that.

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5 Comments on “Securing compliance?”


  1. This seems to me a surprisingly naive view. In the first place it is surely clear that the risk to the institution arises primarily from failures of compliance (enforcement action by HSE, OIA or whoever). Given how fundamentally safe almost all HE activities are, very little benefit arises from going past the minimum standard. The same applies to data protection: very little benefit for doing more than compliance, but very real risks from doing less. And in the second place the University is itself a regulatory bureaucracy pretty much by definition.

  2. Newell Hampson-Jones Says:

    I think that, in some cases but not all, the attitude towards compliance is more damaging and restrictive to the compliance itself.

    Compliance even as a word is tricky. With regards to legislation, it’s certainly apt and accurate, however with standards/best practice etc, “compliance” is misleading with regards to the innovative potential.

    Firstly, one can volunteer whether to follow best practice. There is just as much the option to not follow although there could be negative connotations in terms of PR/marketing if that were the case. Even if an HEI decided to meet the standard, it could be that it doesn’t do enough or doesn’t fit the institution. Then it’s better to reach the best practice, consider it a minimum then innovate above it to deliver a better service/product/practice.

    If more managers viewed standards and best practice in this way, then the value of knowledge about them, if not following them will be appreciated further. Use standards and best practice as potential knowledge creation and management tools!

    Maybe, to achieve this, there should be 2 departments: legislative compliance and innovative practice. One does the required compliance by law and the other looks at best practice, meets the guidances and works consistently in looking for ways to improve and better that practice.

    This second department can then become a massive positive for any institution and possibly a hub for getting management research to work in practice. Instead of being beholden to standards, this department could become the standard innovator and make industry wide innovations.

  3. Alan Carr Says:

    I have to recommend “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande1 a surgeon, public health researcher and writer. He also writes articles on health and medical matters for the New Yorker magazine2.
    It has changed the way I look at effectiveness.
    Forgive the long quote from the introduction:

    “Here, then, is our situation at the start of the twenty-first century: We have accumulated stupendous know-how. We have put it in the hands of some of the most highly trained, highly skilled, and hardworking people in our society. And, with it, they have indeed accomplished extraordinary things. Nonetheless, that know-how is often unmanageable. …

    Knowledge has both saved us and burdened us.

    That means we need a different strategy for overcoming failure, one that builds one experience and takes advantage of the knowledge people have but somehow also makes up for our inevitable human inadequacies. And there is such a strategy- though it will seem almost ridiculous in its simplicity, maybe even crazy to those of us who have spent years carefully developing ever more advanced skills and technologies.
    It’s a checklist.”

    Gawande, Atul, (2011) The Checklist Manifesto, Profile Books, London

  4. Ian Says:

    Compliance with the law is important to maintain reputation. It appears to me though that we are often unable to find means to achieve what we want to do without smoothering it in red tape. It is not just universities but public sector in general. I heard a story last night of a council unwilling to ask for the date of a degree awarded to a job applicant because it might give away someone’s age! A little closer to home we are in danger of putting off partners in an venture because of FSA regulations that the business partners do not think apply. So in short – I think we go too far to be doubly sure of complying.


  5. The quality in tension with compliance here isn’t good practice, but risk. This poses the question more effectively in relation to innovation, in that it’s appropriate for universities to have an appetite for risk; the aim of risk management isn’t to wipe out risk but to leverage it responsibly.

    The problem is that all this is couched in a language that makes the kinds of people who are drawn to work universities start to rock gently.

    But we could look more closely at the corporate language of risk appetite and start to think about what it would take for universities to cultivate this appetite, and even develop it as a kind of singular and defining taste. What would things look like if risk rather than compliance energised what universities do, and became the measure of what governments support them to do?

    (I am so over good practice. Whenever I hear it, I see girl guides.)


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