Regulatory Enforcement Styles

By Gormley, William T., Jr. | Political Research Quarterly, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Regulatory Enforcement Styles


Gormley, William T., Jr., Political Research Quarterly


The enforcement styles of inspectors are particularly important when a regulatory agency deals with issues that are low in salience and low in complexity. In this article, based on interviews with 104 child care inspectors in four states, I distinguish between individual-level and statelevel variations in regulatory stringency, regulatory flexibility and technical support. The evidence suggests a breakdown of democratic accountability but also techniques for restoring it.

In recent years, we have learned a great deal about the dynamics of regulatory enforcement. In particular, it appears that regulatory agencies are more responsive to external political forces than the conventional wisdom suggests (Moe 1985; Scholz and Wei 1986; Scholz et al. 1991; Wood and Waterman 1994). These findings have important implications for democratic theory and public policy (Wood and Waterman 1994). If bureaucracies are already accountable to their political sovereigns, then we may not need additional controls to limit their discretion.

It is important to note, however, that most studies of regulatory enforcement have focused on a particular type of regulatory body-namely, a highly controversial agency that deals with highly complex issues, such as the EPA (Wood 1988) or OSHA (Scholz and Wei 1986) or the FDA (Olson 1995).

While there is no denying the importance or visibility of such agencies, they differ considerably from agencies with lower profiles that deal with less complex problems. Such agencies include state child care licensing agencies, state child support enforcement offices, local housing code enforcement agencies, and local building departments. Although each of these agencies occasionally experiences the glare of unwelcome publicity, each is normally spared the withering scrutiny that EPA, OSHA, and FDA administrators have come to expect. Although each of these agencies faces challenging problems, their jurisdictions are far less technical than those faced by the EPA, OSHA, or their state-level counterparts.

Agencies that confront less salient issues, though subject to interest group pressure, are less subject to oversight by politicians, who care more about other issues. Also, interest group pressure is more likely to be lopsided, emanating from the regulated industry rather than from a broader cross-section of groups. Another key difference is that less salient issues generate fewer policy disputes between the two political parties. Partisanship, like photosynthesis depends on sunlight.

Agencies that confront less complex issues cannot hide behind a shield of professionalism to protect themselves from those political interventions that do arise. Judgments made by inspectors at these agencies cannot be attributed to well-established canons of science, medicine, or law Yet while that makes such agencies more vulnerable to external pressure if and when it occurs, it complicates the tasks of internal supervision. Professionalism may strengthen the leverage of an outside reference group (Wilson 1989: 60), but it also clarifies expectations within the bureaucracy When there are no commonlyaccepted principles to apply, supervisors can only insist that inspectors demonstrate "common sense." Such admonitions are too vague to provide for meaningful managerial control.

With a few exceptions (Nivola 1979; Wilson 1989; Ross 1995; May and Burby 1996), the existing literature neglects regulatory enforcement by agencies that confront less salient and less complex issues. That is regrettable because such agencies may not be quite as responsive to their principals as the regulatory agencies that have received the lion's share of attention. Lacking a strong element of professionalism, such agencies may also be more dependent on the preferences and inclinations of individual inspectors.

In this article, I study the regulatory styles of state child care inspectors, who handle issues that tend to be low in salience and low in complexity I define regulatory style as a multidimensional orientation toward the regulated industry To measure regulatory style, I have interviewed a substantial number of inspectors in four states, which permits attention to both differences across states and differences across inspectors. …

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