Attack of the killer tomatoes: Regulatory policy comes home

by Larry Grant

My daughter would not use ketchup on her hamburger this weekend because she saw that it was “tomato ketchup.”

I can’t help but notice how often the governmental regulatory process has come up recently—from toys, to food, to drugs, to financial markets, to accounting practices, to the airways, to just about anything and everything in our lives. It’s hard for a “reinventor” to ignore regulatory processes and practices, but our clients are extremely reluctant to take them on—until there is a crisis, and even then the wheels turn slowly (witness 9/11 and containerized cargo) and only down well-traveled bureaucratic roads.

How is a reinventor of government to approach this? That is the question. The stakes and incentives for both the regulator and the regulated are high. Agencies in a bureaucracy don’t like to solve problems that are their very reason for being, and the regulated, even though they rail against the regulatory paper storm are quite comfortable with the status quo. Who know what evil lurks in the shadows of change?

Paul Krugman, in his NYTimes column last Friday the 13th, highlights how some of our most, apparently, mundane regulatory functions of U.S. government affect everything from my household, to our foreign policy, to the stability of foreign governments (witness the demonstrations in Korea related to American beef). So even though the regulatory functions seem mundane, the stakes can be high – as I found out when my bypass surgery depended to a great extent on a drug that was found to be adulterated.

What is a reinventor to do with regulatory functions that don’t work – or don’t work the way we think they should?

As with just about any question concerning reinvention we begin with “who’s the customer?” That is, who is the primary intended beneficiary of any product or service – or regulatory function? The idea of “customer” makes many public servants uncomfortable – particularly when regulatory or other kinds of “control” functions are concerned. I find that this discomfort goes away when we point out that the “customer” is not always the person or group that you interact with regularly – like in a retail transaction.

It doesn’t make sense to call the recipient of a speeding ticket the customer of the “arresting” officer. This is because the primary intended beneficiary of the speeding ticket is not the speeder, it is the “public.” This is to say that it is in the public interest that we regulate traffic. The officer in this case delivers an obligation (in the form of a ticket) to the speeder.

This is quite common in government agencies. Sometimes the agency is delivering a service (such as welfare benefits), and sometime the agency is delivering an obligation (ensuring eligibility for the benefit). A reinventor makes a strong distinction between service functions and compliance functions, because their customers are very different. Service functions are generally delivering services (or benefits) directly to their customers. Compliance functions generally deliver obligations to the people they regularly deal with – we call them “compliers” so they are not confused with “customers.”

So what do you think? Who are the customers of these regulatory functions?

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3 responses to “Attack of the killer tomatoes: Regulatory policy comes home

  1. Regulatory expansion is a good example of the federal “mission creep” that Paul Light talks about in his new book (“Ill Governed”) on the need for federal reform. For 250 years, we’ve added new missions for government — including protecting us from every conceivable harm — without funding the costs of expansion.

    Who pays for the oversight that forced the ketchup bottle to include the word “tomato”? Why not charge the producer, who then passes it on to you and your daughter — the ultimate recipients or customers of this safeguard.

    BTW, was it Reagan who famously noted that ketchup was a vegetable when defending a school nutrition program? Maybe this regulation is part of his legacy.

  2. I’m intrigued by the separate distinction of “customers” and “compliers” for services vs. obligations. I understand the thinking and when I’m doing customer service training with governments, the question always comes up about who the ultimate customer is when it is regulatory. Perhaps it helps government employees understand why making customers happy isn’t always possible — especially when an obligation is involved (like paying taxes, getting turned down for food stamps, etc.). When examining delivery processes, I suppose the distinction is useful on some level.

    However, when I’ve been hired to help improve the customer interface skills of the service deliverers who are interacting with citizens, I’m not sure that the distinction is helpful. The last thing we want to do is give permission for poor treatment of any citizen because he is “just a complier” vs. a “customer.”

    Local government especially has more daily face to face and telephone contact with its customers. I would never want to have an employee think that a “business license tax complier” the employee is interacting with can be treated with less respect because the complier has a County obligation to obtain a license. (Hey, you’re just a complier — you have to do this regardless of how cumbersome the process or nasty I’m feeling today.) Neither would I want a library patron to get better treatment because they are receiving a “service” from the County and are somehow more worthy.

    Food for thought?

  3. Annetta Cheek

    Federal regulations have a variety of “customers”–from the person reading the regulation and charged with compliance through the general public, and everyone in between. Like Carol Emmett, I’m troubled by the distinction between customer and complier. One of the major problems with the regulatory process (and I was a government regulator for most of my 25-year federal career) is that the government rarely thinks about the person reading–and complying with–the regulation.

    The government serves the people, even when the particular person being addressed is a “complier.” “Compliers” pay taxes, too. The government should consider everyone involved in the regulatory process to be a customer. If federal employees are “uncomfortable” with that concept, they should just get over it. Treating people as customers and communicating with them clearly will improve not only the attitude of the public toward the government, it will improve the effectiveness of the regulatory program and the rate of compliance, as well.

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