Departments ‘lack skills’ to properly engage public on net-zero challenges

Think tank points to failure of previous green initiatives as a warning on poorly-thought-through policy that fails to gain buy-in
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By Jim Dunton

03 Sep 2021

Whitehall departments tasked with delivering on the government’s commitment to make the UK a net-zero carbon emissions economy by 2050 currently lack the public-engagement skills and capacity to create and implement the policies required to hit the target, according to a report.

The Institute for Government think tank and public engagement charity Involve said the wide-ranging transformation will require significant levels of public involvement to ensure initiatives work as intended and have widespread support. 

Their joint paper says there is limited government capability and expertise on public engagement and little co-ordination of activities between departments. It adds that in many departments, engaging the public is simply “not prioritised as a part of policymaking”.

The report says that with a vast range of measures required to meet the net-zero target – including new taxes and subsidies to support the replacement of gas boilers or encouraging changes in diet – developing policies in partnership with citizens will be crucial.

The IfG and Involve pointed to the failure of successive recent initiatives to improve the energy efficiency of homes as a stark indicator of the consequences of failing to design policy in partnership with the public and business bodies.

“The Green Deal, the coalition government’s flagship energy efficiency programme, was abandoned after only two years, having had low take-up and delivered almost no energy savings,” the report said.

“The National Audit Office said that the Department of Energy and Climate Change had based the policy on wrong assumptions, failed to test its plans and implemented them chaotically.

“The Green Homes Grant, a successor policy designed as a stimulus measure in the 2020 Budget, similarly flopped, with the government apparently failing to take account of the lack of a ready-to-go supply chain that could respond quickly. Many homeowners were also put off applying by what was an overly complex scheme.”

Report authors Tom Sasse and Sarah Allan said failure to engage the public properly in important new policies results in U-turns when those policies hit a rock in terms of public opposition or encounter other problems that proper engagement could have predicted.

“These reversals have costs in terms of both public trust and a loss of time, effort and resources,” they said.

Sasse and Allan said the failure of the Green Deal and the Green Homes Grant underscore officials’ “limited understanding” of the concerns of business and consumers.

They said: “Involving a range of groups – in the case of policies on retrofitting, for example: builders, homeowners from different income deciles, housing associations, landlords, tenants and so on – more actively in the design of policy can help overcome barriers to delivery and take-up that often mean good policy intent fails to translate into action on the ground.”

Their paper calls on departments to invest in strengthening the public engagement expertise needed to plan and commission exercises effectively. It also suggests that either the Cabinet Office or the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy should be tasked with coordinating net-zero public engagement across government, with greater input from the independent Climate Change Committee.

The report said that better coordination would reduce the likelihood of engagement work being duplicated and would also be vital for aligning cross-cutting work.

“Most policy areas will require several departments and external experts to work together to engage the public – and effective co-ordination will be needed to achieve this,” it said.

“On housing retrofit, for example, the business department (which has overall policy responsibility) would need to consult with the Treasury (which controls any possible fiscal incentives), the housing department (which oversees building standards/inspections), local authorities (which manage social housing, inspect buildings and control the planning system), energy suppliers and others.”

Sasse, who is associate director at the IfG, said it is hard to underestimate the impact that meeting the 2050 commitment on emissions-reduction would have.

“Net zero means there are some big changes coming for the country – and for people’s lives,” he said.

“The transition will only be a success if government gets much better at involving the public in decision making.”

Allan, who is director of capability building and standards at Involve, said ministers could learn lessons from the parliament-led Climate Assembly UK initiative, which ran from June 2019 to September last year.

The joint IfG and Innovate report said that boosting engagement around net-zero work will be more complicated than simply getting greater quantities of public feedback.

It said key issues will include how members of the public were engaged, the way in which their feedback was used, and how departments pool their engagement work.

The report said among the skills improvements required in departments would  be the ability to plan and commission specific public engagement processes.

“Those in government will need to think about the roles to which they are best suited, and where they should bring in external expertise,” Sasse and Allan said.

“Departments will need to commission their own public engagement, as well as drawing on the engagement conducted by others.

“They will need to develop strong relationships with external contractors, either third sector or commercial suppliers, who already have considerable expertise in running public engagement processes.”

They said the government should use its upcoming net-zero strategy to set out how it intends to use public engagement to inform the design of the policies that will meet its net-zero commitment.

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