For the past few years, the “evolving role of the regulator” has been a frequent topic in speeches that the Administrator and other senior FAA officials make to aviation community audiences. The newly-announced Compliance Philosophy is certainly part of that evolving role, as is the FAA’s Risk-Based Decision Making and tools like Safety Management Systems (SMS).
Since the “role of the regulator” is an important topic for anyone who is regulated I thought it might be helpful to devote this space to explaining how the evolving role of the regulator – the FAA – leads to the evolving role of the regulated.
The FAA’s traditional approach to compliance is based on the assumption that if an airman or organization is fully compliant with the applicable regulations, then we’ve achieved safety. Based on that assumption, we have traditionally provided oversight primarily by checking a certificate holder’s conformity with the regulations and reviewing technical processes. The agency used enforcement as the primary tool to gain and sustain compliance.
We have come to realize, though, that following the rules is one of those “necessary-but-not-sufficient” activities. It’s not possible to make enough rules to cover every conceivable circumstance. So compliance means not just following the rules, but also going beyond the rules – taking proactive measures to find and fix problems, and effectively managing the risk they create in the system.
The FAA has also recognized that the greatest systemic safety risk doesn’t come from a specific event or its outcome, but rather from intentional non-compliance, or lack of cooperation in correcting the problem. That’s why the FAA needs to change how it operates. We can’t keep doing the same job the same way we did it ten years ago, because it’s not relevant to the aviation community the agency oversees.
Risk-Based Decision Making & Safety Management Systems (SMS)
That is the reason for Administrator Huerta’s strategic initiative for Risk-Based Decision Making, which is about using data to evaluate risk, and then targeting resources to address the areas of highest risk.
Risk-Based Decision Making relies heavily on tools such as the Safety Management System (SMS) approach. Properly implemented, SMS fosters a strong, voluntary safety culture and focuses more clearly on risk. It also provides the structure and the tools to mitigate risks not specifically covered in the regulations.
In a very fundamental way, SMS shifts the oversight burden from regulator to certificate holder, with the FAA using the tools and the framework that SMS provides to focus on safety assurance. The FAA expects certificate holders – be they large operators or single pilots – to develop and implement risk controls appropriate to their operational environment. That includes reporting, so that we can collaboratively find and fix problems before they cause an accident or incident.
Finding and fixing problems is the core goal of the FAA Administrator’s Compliance Philosophy Order, which is the enabling guidance for the agency’s risk-based decision making approach to compliance.
The Compliance Philosophy establishes the framework for two big things.
First is using the information we get through open communication – part of SMS – to get to the root cause of problems in the NAS. The FAA expects certificate holders to identify safety issues, take steps to correct the issue, and adopt measures to ensure the non-compliance does not occur again.
Second is using that information to determine the most appropriate and most effective tool to fix those problems and make sure they stay fixed.
Culture change takes time, but here’s what the FAA is working to do under the new approach: When deviations occur, the agency starts with analyzing the facts and using interdependence and critical thinking to ensure outcomes consistent with regulations and facts of a specific case. If deviations arise from factors such as flawed procedures, simple mistakes, lack of understanding, or diminished skills, the most effective way to fix the problem is through working collaboratively with the certificate holder to fix the problem in a sustainable way.
The culture change certificate holders need to make is to be willing and able to comply, and also to collaborate with the FAA to find and fix problems in the system. It will take time and adjustment on all sides, but I’m confident we can get there. (FAA Safety Briefing – JanFeb 2016)