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Posted: 28 February 2008

Regulating everything… megaregulated Ireland

“Ireland is the world leader in creating regulation agencies, surpassing even the United States in recent years” says Professor Colin Scott, UCD Professor of EU Regulation and Governance, who delivered his inaugural lecture at University College Dublin on Tuesday 26 February 2008.

“This proliferation of regulatory agencies in Ireland and most other OECD member states, over the past 30 years, is linked to the privatisation of state owned enterprises, disenchantment with self-regulation, and the process of policy diffusion, as European governments copy from each other and from longstanding American experience,” explains Professor Scott. “It may also be linked to governments, short of cash or reluctant to spend it, wishing to give a low cost symbolic commitment to action.”

According to Professor Scott, a recent study by the thinktank TASC concluded that there were over 450 state agencies in Ireland. And an official report published in 2007 identified 215 bodies in Ireland exercising statutory regulatory powers (including local bodies and ministries).

Professor Scott is currently involved in research at University College Dublin which shows that among these bodies there are more than fifty central public agencies dedicated to regulation and operating at arms-length both from government and from those they oversee.

“The creation of regulatory agencies creates expectations which, in most cases, they cannot possibly be expected to fulfil,” says Scott. “The paradox of regulatory agencies is that they frequently possess too much power outside the normal structures of ministerial responsibility to be legitimate, but too little power to secure the outcomes sought.”

Rather than giving the agencies more power and less accountability, the solution, according to Scott, is to recognise and work with the various organisations, capacities and forms of control within particular regulatory regimes to promote learning and understanding not only of policy solutions, but also of policy problems.

“We must recognise the unworkability of what I call ‘megaregulation’,” says Scott, “and substitute it with what I term ‘metaregulation’.”

According to Scott, perhaps the most important policy implication is to suggest that wherever governments are considering a policy problem – be it unsafe food, passive smoking or poor quality university research – what they are considering is an existing regime which cannot be swept away and replaced by a regulatory agency.

“A more fruitful approach would be to seek to understand where the capacities lie within the existing regimes, and perhaps to strengthen those which appear to pull in the right direction and seek to inhibit those that pull the wrong way,” he says. “In this way the regulatory reform agenda has the potential to address issues of regulatory fragmentation.”

Scott notes that the Irish government’s ‘Better Regulation’ programme does score well both in its sensitivity to alternatives to regulation and its institutionalisation of alternative rules and processes within its Regulatory Impact Analysis strategy. “Indeed it has received praise for its ‘multi-instrument, multi-stakeholder’ approach,” he says.

“But regulatory reform programmes have nowhere led to a substantial reduction in governmental activity in regulation, nor more importantly, a qualitative change in the character of regulatory governance,” claims Scott. “This is because the problem they tackle is limited to a sense that regulation imposes burdens rather than tackling more fundamental issues of the limits to the governance capacity of government.”

Professor Colin Scott is UCD Professor of EU Regulation and Governance at the UCD School of Law.

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Regulating everything… megaregulated Ireland