What constitutes regulatory excellence? Answering this question is an indispensable first step for any public regulatory agency that is measuring, striving towards, and, ultimately, achieving excellence. One useful way to answer this question would be to draw on the broader literature on regulatory design, enforcement, and management. But, perhaps a more authentic way would be to look at how regulators themselves define excellence. However, we actually know remarkably little about how the regulatory officials who are immersed in the task of regulation conceive of their own success.

In this Article, we investigate regulators’ definitions of regulatory excellence by drawing on a unique source of data that provides an important window on regulators’ own aspirations: their strategic plans. Strategic plans have been required or voluntarily undertaken for the past decade or longer by regulators around the globe. In these plans, regulators offer mission statements, strategic goals, and measurable and achievable outcomes, all of which indicate what regulators value and are striving to become. Occasionally, they even state explicitly where they have fallen short of “best-in-class” status and how they intend to improve. To date, a voluminous literature exists examining agency practices in strategic planning, but we are aware of no study that tries to glean from the substance of a sizeable number of plans how regulators themselves construe regulatory excellence. The main task of this Article is undertaking this effort. This Article draws on twenty plans from different regulators in nine countries. We found most generally that excellent regulators describe themselves (though not necessarily using exactly these words) as institutions that are more (1) efficient, (2) educative, (3) multiplicative, (4) proportional, (5) vital, (6) just, and (7) honest. In addition to these seven shared attribute categories, our reading of the plans also revealed five other “unusual” attributes that only one or two agencies mentioned. Beyond merely cataloguing the attributes identified by agencies, this Article also discusses commonalities (and differences) between plan structures, emphases, and framings. We found that the plans differed widely in features such as the specificity of their mission statements, the extent to which they emphasized actions over outcomes (or vice versa), and the extent to which commitments were organized along organizational fiefdoms or cut across bureaucratic lines.

We urge future scholarship to explore alternative methods of text mining, and to study strategic plans over time within agencies, in order to track how agencies’ notions of regulatory excellence respond to changes in the regulatory context and the larger circumstances within which agencies operate. Looking longitudinally will also shed light on how agencies handle strategic goals that are either met or that prove to be unattainable.