How regulators can benefit from independent, proprietary research: Insights from Kieran Walshe
Why should regulators expend their limited resources pursuing research projects? Well, according to Kieran Walshe, even small amounts of proprietary regulatory research can have a significant impact on decision-making and understanding of organizational priorities. In this piece, we explore some of the insights gathered by Walshe over his years in the world of research and how regulators can put them to good use.

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With data collection as robust and widely employed as it is today, and with artificial intelligence enabling researchers to draw increasingly powerful insights from new data, the benefits of research in the regulatory space are perhaps obvious – drawing conclusions based on evidence helps regulators better understand the mechanics and trends of the world around them and in the fields they regulate.

A bit more complicated, however, is the question of how regulators can take the reins and empower themselves to conduct research studies that concern their specific aims as rule-makers and enforcers. With in-house research capabilities, regulators can “get upstream” of developments and exert more influence on the way research projects are designed, ensuring they are relevant to their priorities.

The public, too, benefits from regulatory research. When agencies can perform studies that inform their work, the public receives better reform and more impactful regulation. Regulators can also better command public confidence by demonstrating that they have thought about the work they are doing. But how are organizations supposed to take actionable steps to build these capabilities?

In a recent episode of Ascend Radio, Kieran Walshe, Professor of Health Policy and Management at Manchester Business School, sat down with Ascend Editor-in-Chief Paul Leavoy to discuss the value of proprietary regulatory research. Here, we will highlight key observations from that conversation and discuss how regulators can better prepare themselves for the research challenges of the future.

Case studies: Locum doctors and quality of care

Walshe’s research on the implications of temporary working for doctors, funded by the U.K.’s National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), found that locum doctors – a term used in the U.K. and Canada for doctors working under temporary contracts – were widely misunderstood in their roles as health care workers. The research showed that the key determinant of patient safety with locum doctors was how organizations were using them, rather than the strengths and weaknesses of the doctors themselves.

The study revealed that by making sure locum doctors were safe and competent to practice, performing good induction and oversight, and soliciting feedback from organizational staff and locums alike, health care leaders could do much more to ensure quality care under temporary health care work arrangements. If concerns arose, organizations were advised to take corrective action, rather than simply terminating locum doctors so they would be free to work elsewhere without evaluation.

In another project, Walshe partnered with The King’s Fund to investigate the Care Quality Commission’s (CQC) new regulatory approach to the health care field, focusing on the impact of regulation on the health care professions. As a result of their findings, researchers were able to create an “impact framework” that highlighted several ways regulation could impact quality of care, whether that was through rulemaking, inspections, or influence on organizational priorities.

Building in-house capabilities

Designating a knowledge broker

According to Walshe, the seeds for a fruitful in-house regulatory research division can be planted by designating a leader in the agency – a “knowledge broker” of sorts – to pay attention to the world of regulatory research and keep up to date on studies that can be incorporated into the agency’s work. Many methods, theories, and tools are transferable between regulatory fields, so the work of horizon scanning across other jurisdictions and professions can reveal opportunities to use existing research to inform regulatory work.

Building research networks

Additionally, whichever personnel are placed in charge of the research focus within a regulatory agency should prioritize building networks with entities that conduct research, such as academic institutions and think tanks. Walshe points out that by paying attention to community building events, like the U.K Professional Standards Authority’s annual meeting for researchers and policy makers, regulatory staff can make the connections necessary to fund relevant research projects.

The value of these connections extends in both directions. Many of the projects desired by research institutes cannot be funded without contacts in the regulatory community. Keeping one foot in the world of research can foster relationships that benefit regulators and researchers alike. There is also value in networking with other regulators, as groups of regulators can in certain cases have more leverage to commission research projects than lone actors.

Choosing strategic research priorities

From Walshe’s experiences, he noted that regulators reap more benefits when they align their research goals with their agencies’ foremost priorities. It is easy to fall into the trap of arbitrarily choosing a research area that will not necessarily inform regulatory decision making, leading to projects that become mere “show and tell” presentations for agency leaders. By carefully selecting a small number of research areas (so as not to spread an agency’s resources too thin) regulators can set themselves up for better outcomes in their undertakings.

Making research useful

Interestingly, one result of the aforementioned CQC research project was the finding that “intelligence-led” inspections were not an effective way to improve quality of care in hospitals. In other words, using data to determine which hospitals should be inspected and when they should be inspected had little impact on whether the inspections actually promoted quality care. Despite this finding, the CQC has continued with its efforts to use data and intelligence to inform its inspection program.

This goes to show that research does not always directly translate to meaningful regulatory action or policy changes. Even if organizations follow the insights derived from research projects, it can be difficult to simply act on these insights in a way that has a direct impact on their regulated fields.

Regulators, of course, often suffer from a relatively limited capacity for extra projects to begin with, especially in comparison to the considerable work many of them face daily, and it can be difficult to add research as yet another organizational priority.

Still, Walshe’s work shows that if proprietary research can be done, it can help to build the wealth of knowledge at an organization’s disposal. It can influence choices in future research projects and decisions of regulatory action that may come up in the future. And it can be a key factor in empowering regulators to better handle tomorrow’s problems.


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Jordan Milian
Written byJordan Milian
Jordan Milian is a writer covering government regulation and occupational licensing for Ascend, with a professional background in journalism and marketing.


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