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Ritual Compliance

Ritual compliance is a term usually reserved to describe the way that regulatees may resist regulation by going through the motions of compliance. However, the notion of ritual compliance can also be applied to regulators.

Ritual compliance

This article focuses on the tensions between the paralysing orthodoxy of regulatory concepts such as compliance and the conflicting aim of many regulators – and importantly the end-users of regulation – to improve their sectors. We argue that regulation does  not have to be the ritualistic adherence to the idea of compliance, of going by the book to the nth letter. What is needed is multiple strategies to achieve better outcomes for the end-users of regulation.

Why is there a ritualistic adherence to the notion of compliance? The social-legal literature has:

‘traditionally focused on explaining corporate compliance and non-compliance with existing legal requirements, tacitly assuming that regulated business corporations take costly measures to meet public policy aspirations only when specifically required to do so by law and when they believe that legal noncompliance is likely to be detected and harshly penalized’ (Gunningham et al., 2004: p. 309).

Consequently, when regulators demand compliance they assume that this also brings improvement. Regulators assume that organisations only improve because they are forced to do so.

The assumption that compliance brings about improvement is surprising given that the literature also supports the views that regulations stultify innovation and improvement (Braithwaite, 1982). For example, If as a regulated person, I comply with safety regulations and standards I simply install the necessary guards, warnings or coloured containers. Workplace safety stays at the regulated level – I go by the regulatory book. The regulator also goes by the book. Inspectors look for whether the rules have been followed and the organisation is compliant. Compliance to the rules is seen as synonymous with improvement (see our post on the Francis Inquiry).

Further, the legal basis of the regulatory literature maintains a focus on deterrence, a belief that punishment and fear are the best motivators even though research has consistently shown that of those regulated nearly 80% abide voluntarily by the rules (for example, see HMRC, 2009). Nevertheless, inspectors reproduce the focus on deterrence assuming that waving the ‘big stick’ is effective; that fear is the most effective persuader.

As Martin (2010) argues, a compliance-based regulation is essentially reactive, it corrects what has happened in the past. Improvement, on the other hand, is a beneficial change that occurs in the future. Regulating for improvement means cooperating with those regulated and instead of using fear, promoting optimism to motivate organisations and people to improve (see our post on Responsiveness: Going Beyond Compliance). Regulators buried in ritual compliance will need to move on from the socio-legal orthodoxies (for more ideas see our list of resources for regulation).


Braithwaite, J. 1982. Enforced Self-Regulation: A New Strategy For Corporate Crime Control. Michigan Law Review, 80, 1466-1507.

Gunningham, N., Kagan, R. A. & Thornton, D. 2004. Social License and Environmental Protection: Why Businesses Go Beyond Compliance. Law & Social Inquiry, 29, 307-341.

HMRC 2009. Individuals Prioritisation, London, HMRC,

Martin, S. 2010. Knowledge from Inspection: External Oversight and Information to Improve Performance. In: Walshe, K., Harvey, G. & Jas, P. (eds.) Connecting Knowledge and Performance in Public Services: From Knowing to Doing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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