Observations about the rapid pace of change and disruptive forces in the world today are not new, but if there is anything to learn from 2020, it is how pervasive and enduring those changes and disruptions can be. Self-regulating professions have not been immune to the big developments of 2020, including the global pandemic effects, a growing movement of protests to end discrimination, and continuous technological advances.
With these factors in mind, below we consider what changes 2021 may hold in store for engineering regulators. In this first of a two-part series, we consider upcoming changes to regulatory frameworks in Canada and Australia, and what effects the COVID-19 pandemic may have on regulators.
Regulatory frameworks: legislation and oversight
Many experts in self-regulation are predicting a future with more external reviews (either self-initiated or imposed) and a shift towards more umbrella legislation where similar professions share the same regulatory body. Proponents argue that ethical responsibilities are not that different across professions, single regulators reduce administrative burden, and pooled resources and expertise create better standards, services, and programs. Regulatory reviews are often one step in the process of evaluating whether an umbrella model of legislation and regulatory oversight should be adopted.
In British Columbia, a government-initiated review led to a new umbrella legislation and oversight body for professions in the natural resources sector. British Columbia’s Professional Governance Act received royal assent in November 2018 and is expected to come into force in early 2021. This legislation has created a new oversight body known as the Office of the Superintendent of Professional Governance and will bring six different regulated professions under one umbrella legislation, including engineers and geoscientists. When the new act comes into force later this year, the existing Engineers and Geoscientists Act in British Columbia will be repealed. Changes for the practice of engineering which will roll out in the subsequent months include:
- mandatory reporting for continuing professional development
- corporate regulation
- increased enforcement fines
- standardized Codes of Ethics
- restricted advocacy
- Council powers to adopt bylaws without member voting
- a smaller Council size with more public members
This will have significant effects on the engineering regulator, practitioners, businesses, volunteers, and other key stakeholders. Engineers and Geoscientists British Columbia has been working hard to prepare internal policies and procedures for these new requirements, communicate with registrants, and work collaboratively with the Office of the Superintendent to ensure a smooth transition.
Another key development in regulatory frameworks is the introduction of new engineering legislation in the Australian state of Victoria. While Canada does already have a much more regulated engineering profession than Australia, any jurisdiction introducing new legislation can offer comparisons.
After Queensland, Victoria will become the second state in Australia to regulate the practice of engineering when the Professional Engineers Registration Act 2019 takes effect on July 1, 2021. Using a phased-in approach over two years, the act will require practitioners providing professional services in the disciplines of structural, civil, mechanical, electrical, and fire safety engineering to be registered. A new code of conduct under the act will require registrants to comply with 14 obligations, including provisions to act only in their area of competence and to be honest and fair. The introduction of the legislation indicates that the people of Victoria are recognizing the need for more rigorous public protection of engineering work.
More information: Government of Victoria Professional Engineers Registration Scheme
COVID-19 Effects: Regulatory functions in a pandemic and post-pandemic environment
Regulators have been forced to quickly and flexibly adapt how they deliver services to meet the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic. Many regulators have successfully transformed operational procedures rapidly,. Necessity and practical problem-solving have created a new environment for many functions that may not have been evaluated in years.
Changes in procedures have been seen in all aspects of the regulators’ responsibilities, from registration to discipline. In registration, the reliance on physical original documents has been replaced with acceptance of scanned copies and online portals have been upgraded to remove mail-in submissions. Investigations and discipline hearings have moved into hybrid or online environments. Many regulators hosted online council meetings and enhanced electronic voting systems for annual general meetings. Internally, regulators also updated policies and increased technological resources to facilitate the shift to remote working.
Engineers have also adapted to unforeseen changes, with many positive results. Continuing education programs that were previously in-person events were often located in larger municipalities; now, these programs have moved online and become more accessible to practitioners from a wider geographic distribution. An uptick in electronic seals shows more engineers are delivering professional products virtually.
The pandemic will be affecting regulators well into 2021 and beyond. The situation has provided a unique opportunity for regulators to test their own preparedness, adaptability, and resilience. The question for regulators (as well as practitioners, governments, and the public) is whether the changes brought by the pandemic will remain in place and become the new standard of service. Regulators can focus on reviewing the lessons they have learned to sustain the positive improvements, address unintended consequences, and further innovation. The current efforts can lead to better responses to future uncertainties and crises.
Check back in the next edition of Engineering Matters for the second article of this two-part series, in which we consider ongoing pressures and changing expectations when it comes to foreign credential recognition, regulators’ roles in equity, diversity, and inclusion, and the opportunities and challenges of big data.