by Roland Jackson, Sciencewise Executive Chair
Sciencewise has now supported some 50 public dialogues on policy issues involving science and technology, ranging from energy and the environment to nanotechnology and synthetic biology. Almost regardless of the starting point, questions of regulation and governance are raised by members of the public. That is hardly surprising: regulatory systems exist to balance protection for people and the environment with the benefits of specific activities. Quite often benefits and risks fall asymmetrically, a challenge that participants in public dialogues are invariably quick to spot.
Regulatory systems also implicitly or explicitly favour particular pathways or trajectories of technology over others, for example in the mix of energy supplies.
So regulatory issues are central to public policy and it occurred to us at Sciencewise to ask whether there was a place for the reasoned public voice in regulatory policy more generally, rather than in the case by case manner in which regulatory questions are normally addressed.
We started with a literature review. Just take a glance at Appendix 1 for a list of the dozens and dozens of regulatory bodies, or Appendix 3 for a snapshot of the UK regulatory framework.
That led us on to conversations with a range of people involved in regulation across Government, and the result is this policy paper on Public Voice on Regulation. (This report is an extension of an earlier paper produced by Sciencewise in 2014, exploring whether there are broader issues across regulation as a whole, for which a deliberative public involvement might currently be both missing and potentially valuable. Click through for the full report and executive summary.)
Given the diversity of regulators, and the varied types of activity, people or organisations regulated, what issues and opportunities have emerged?
First, we should acknowledge the consultation that is invariably required when regulatory changes are being considered. Different regulatory bodies engage in substantive consultation through formal processes, the potential danger being that it is generally the voice of the more structured stakeholders that is heard, with the associated risk of regulatory capture. A deliberative approach with citizens rather than particular interest groups may offer unexpected insights, and may be essential for wider credibility and confidence. A case in point is the recent dialogue on mitochondrial replacement, in which the deliberative dialogue worked effectively alongside other methods of engagement.
But there is much more potential than this. Our paper argues for a more collaborative approach to regulation. This would combine co-design of the regulatory framework with co-production of outcomes, through more extensive citizen engagement in monitoring and assessment. One approach the Government has taken, soliciting widespread public involvement, though particularly from the business sector, is the Red Tape Challenge.
At the level of individual regulatory bodies it is straightforward to imagine how this might happen, and there are many examples already. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) provides an example of tripartite collaboration in regulation: it regularly involves professionals, patients, carers, service users and the public in the development of guidance and quality standards, through consultations and citizens’ panels. NICE’s Citizens’ Council is a panel of 30 members of the public offering a public perspective on overarching moral and ethical issues.
With regulatory policy more generally the challenge is greater, not least because of the political capital tied up in the system. Take the ‘one in, two out’ rule under the auspices of the Regulatory Policy Committee. There has been no specific public debate about the assumptions on which this is based; a monetised model that risks devaluing or ignoring social choices and impacts. What would a deliberative public discourse on ‘one in, two out’ throw up?
As the Better Regulation Executive continues to review principles of regulation there are opportunities, both across Government and in regulatory policy cycle review teams in individual departments, to ask where a wider public voice may be useful. Typically this is seen as a question of risk management, ensuring regulatory changes are not out of step with public and stakeholder opinion. But there is more potential than that. Early public deliberation around regulatory frameworks themselves, and the social choices they embed, may lead to substantive insights and improvements to policy.