Professional Regulation in the Digital Era: Modernizing Regulatory Practices in the Public Interest

Leslie, Kathleen | $22,632

Alberta Athabasca University 2021 SSHRC

The rapidly evolving digital era is transforming the nature of service delivery in many professions. In Canada, many of these professions including law, social work, and nursing are governed by professional regulatory bodies that are legally mandated to protect the public. These regulators are facing vexing challenges in fulfilling this mandate because of the legal and ethical complexities of adapting regulatory practices to the modern digital economy. While aspects of the digital era such as virtual service delivery or tele-practice are not entirely new, the COVID‑19 pandemic has rapidly accelerated digitally enabled work for many professions. Regulators are under intense pressure to facilitate access to safe and high-quality professional services in the digital economy by reforming their regulatory practices. However, little is known about how professional regulators are responding to the rapidly evolving digital era and how regulating in the public interest is conceptualized in this surging digital space.

We will explore this terrain through a qualitative comparative case study, pursuing the following objectives:

(1) Explore measures, approaches, policies, and decisions that regulators have implemented to effectively regulate in the public interest during the modern digital era.

(2) Analyze the similarities and differences of these responses in specific professions, both before and in response to the COVID‑19 pandemic.

(3) Develop preliminary theoretical insights about how the digital era is influencing the role and relevance of professional regulation in contemporary society.

Our study will unfold in two broad stages: (1) in-depth analysis of legal, regulatory, and policy documents; and (2) key informant interviews, with results providing an in-depth understanding of how three Ontario professional regulatory bodies are responding and adapting to the challenges of regulating professional work in the digital era. Comparing these regulatory responses will offer sufficient depth and breadth to identify promising approaches as well as related challenges and opportunities in several areas: ensuring practice standards provide necessary guidance for virtual practice; facilitating interjurisdictional virtual practice; altering entry to practice and continuing fitness to practice requirements so that they include digital competencies; and changing disciplinary procedures to account for nuances of virtual service delivery.

Our findings will contribute to academic knowledge on the regulation of professional work, and help policymakers and regulators develop appropriate and risk-balanced policies, guidelines, and practice standards for professional regulation in the modern digital era. We will also provide cross-sectoral stakeholders, including academics, with theoretical and pragmatic insights for regulating virtual work environments and the role that professional regulators can and should play in the rapid scaling of digitally enabled workplaces. Our interdisciplinary team’s affiliations with the Canadian Health Workforce Network, the Council of Licensure, Enforcement and Regulation, and the Canadian Network of Agencies for Regulation will enhance our knowledge mobilization planswhich not only include peer-reviewed publications, but emphasize integrated events where regulators, government representatives, policymakers, and researchers can discuss the impact of the findings on future adoption and practice. Undergraduate and graduate student training will play a central role throughout the project. Our long-term goal is to build an evidence base for policymakers, regulators, and legislators to draw upon when crafting regulatory reform that both supports future-focused professional work and maintains public protection.

With funding from the Government of Canada

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