Sharon Holloway; Vicky Midgley
November 2013

Smartening up the environmental regulatory framework

environmental SCIENTIST | UK regulation: endless paperwork or essential protection | November 2013

In July 2012, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) initiated the Smarter Environmental Regulation Review (SERR) to take a cross-cutting user perspective for the reform of environmental regulation. This review was launched in response to the Red Tape Challenge’s environment theme. Its remit was to investigate how Defra and its regulators might reduce regulatory burdens on businesses by reforming the environmental regulatory framework.

Smarter Guidance and Data
The review recommended early action in two main areas: rationalising guidance and simplifying the way; that businesses report information. It concluded that whilst guidance and data reporting are clearly important for supporting environmental regulation, they have become more costly and complex than they need to be. Furthermore, the review’s findings suggested that action on these two areas could actually raise standards in terms of environmental compliance by removing confusion, uncertainty and tedium for users.

Implementation of the recommendations began in May with the launch of the Smarter Guidance and Data project. This work is a joint effort across Defra and its agencies. The Smarter Guidance project covers environmental guidance and guidance associated with Defra’s non-environmental policy areas. Guidance has been defined as any public-facing written content that explains what to do, how to do it and why.

Addressing piecemeal publication
Guidance needs to be consolidated into fewer documents. Iterations and amendments are often added incrementally, making the resulting job of working out how and what should apply more difficult than it needs to be.” (Business feedback on existing guidance)

Detailed mapping of existing guidance was carried out as part of the review. This exercise found over 6,000 separate documents with more than 126,000 pages of reading material. It soon became evident that extensive guidance was being generated in response to environmental legislation but that there were no consistent principles, architecture or governance to ensure that it was being designed from a user perspective. Guidance had grown in a piecemeal way. This exercise also recorded the business sectors targeted by existing guidance documents. The most recent analysis showed the following sectors as receiving the largest number of documents as seen in Figure 1.

This figure highlights the amount of reading material that different sectors are expected to digest, and give an indication of the potential time and resources that could be required to understand the relevant environmental regulations.

Understanding environmental obligations and keeping up to date with changes takes time and resources away from the ‘day job’. The review found that businesses devote significant resource to understanding environmental obligations. Businesses with lower levels of capacity struggle the most. Interviews and other  research conducted as part of the review suggested  that awareness and understanding of environmental  regulations is a particular problem for small and medium  enterprises (SMEs) and micro-businesses.  

It is not surprising then, that the review found widespread  support for simplification. Research carried out as part of the review emphasised this as did comments received  through public feedback on the project’s website.

Smarter Guidance aims
Smarter Guidance wants to make it easier and quicker for businesses to find clear information about what they need to do. There should be one authoritative source of guidance, covering all relevant departmental and regulator interests, with clear arrangements in place so that guidance is kept up to date and new guidance is only produced when there is a clear need. Reading material should be kept to a minimum and should give users confidence about meeting their legal requirements.

One source: the move to GOV.UK
From now until Spring 2014, the Government Digital  Service (GDS) will be focusing on migrating content from all the Government agencies’ websites to a single  website, GOV.UK. This move will lead to nearly all of Defra agency guidance, including that produced by the Environment Agency and Natural England, being hosted on GOV.UK. It will also involve a comprehensive audit of existing web content, in particular public-facing guidance. GDS has responsibility for managing GOV.UK and has been closely involved in developing Smarter Guidance’s approach to reforming guidance.

Start with user needs
Defining a user need must be strict and honest. For GDS it’s the need the user has of government, not the need of  government to impart information to the user.” (GDS Service Manual) 

GDS places user needs at the forefront of content design and it is this approach that Defra has incorporated into its plans to reform guidance. The process begins with a user needs assessment:

  • Who are the users targeted by the content? 
  • What do they want to know? 
  • What do they want to do, and why?

This assessment involves analysing different sources of user requirements, such as Google Analytics data, contact centre information, email enquiries, research and surveys. The data comes directly from customers and it is also tested against data on the usage of existing documents or web pages. 

The size of user groups will obviously vary according to subject area, or task, so evidence of high user demand is only one of a number of factors that are considered. For example, the analysis has highlighted documents that are clearly out of date and not being used at all. There are additional criteria to test whether content meets user needs that are linked to Government’s unique roles: to provide services; to fulfil regulatory functions; and to provide information that is inherent to people’s rights. This assessment helps to build what is known as the ‘user story’ (the user need and the outline of the content that is required to meet that need). The process is built around the following format:

Actor : As a ... (business/ citizen/charity, etc)
Narrative: I want to ... 
Goal: So that ...

This approach requires sharp focus on what users need to do, or understand, and importantly on the value of the goal from the user’s perspective. 

User stories are the building blocks for producing content plans. These plans go through an internal review process, are assessed by GDS, and will be published on the Smarter Guidance and Data public website for comment. Detailed drafts will then be developed that will also be subject to internal scrutiny. Targeted stakeholder engagement will be used to help refine draft material before it is published on GOV.UK.

Latest findings suggest that the greatest burdens resulting from the environmental and non-environmental guidance produced by Defra and its ‘arm’s length’ bodies are associated with the following policy areas:

  • Waste;
  • Wildlife management;
  • Marine management;
  • Landscape, countryside and recreation;
  • CAP schemes;
  • Land management;
  • Animal health and welfare; and
  • Water.

Smarter Data: simplifying reporting
There undoubtedly is scope for streamlining the data  collection process in the environmental sector. We are pleased  to join Defra in this important initiative both by providing  dedicated resource and specialist in-house expertise in how multiple reporting can be prevented, resulting in efficiency savings for both the regulator and the private sector.” (Kevin Hurst, Marketing & Communications Director, Veolia Environmental Services.)

In terms of the information reporting, the Smarter Environmental Regulation Review’s Phase 1 Report found a total of 243 different information obligations were required from business. Twelve different electronic portals were identified and reporting frequencies ranged from one-off to monthly, with the most common being one-off (45 per cent), ad hoc or on-going (23 per cent) and annual reporting (15 per cent). Areas with the greatest number of information obligations currently are: environmental permitting (54), waste (34) and hazardous materials and chemicals (29). Information can be reported at multiple times of the year in different formats and to at different locations. Businesses described existing reporting arrangements as overlapping and being too complex. Furthermore, it is not always clear to businesses why information is being requested and how this information is being used by regulators.

‘Root and branch’ review
By working closely with the industry and regulators, we have identified promising reform opportunities that can significantly reduce red tape. Regulators involved in the review have been proactive and supportive which has enabled it to progress quickly and positively and ensured the best options are identified.” (Mark Newbold, Principal Consultant, WSP Environment & Energy Services )

In response to the review’s findings, Defra commissioned an independent assessment of all the environmental and farming information that businesses submit to Defra and its regulators. These information obligations include both one-off requirements (such as permit applications) and ongoing requirements (such as monitoring data). The aim of this assessment is to examine whether all these information obligations are still needed and to explore how data collection might be streamlined.

Initial proposals have been developed for the following six policy areas:

  1. Environmental permitting;
  2. Water and waste management;
  3. Agricultural management;
  4. Emissions;
  5. Hazardous industries, materials and chemicals; and
  6. Habitats and species.

Three more areas are still to be reviewed: rural and animal health; marine; and carbon and other greenhouse gases. Each area involves a robust challenge process. Options that have come out of the independent assessment (led 
by the consultancy firm WSP) are presented to regulators and policy officials for discussion and challenge. These options are also informed by feedback from interviews with industry representatives and discussions with industry focus groups.

Establishing options to reform the current reporting landscape is not an easy task; however this comprehensive cross-cutting review has identified potential savings that would not be possible from narrower reviews. We have put options on the table that would eliminate a range of reporting and application requirements and streamline others through the use of new digital approaches to information collection and management.” (Mark Newbold, Principal Consultant, WSP Environment & Energy Services)

The options for reforming information obligations that that have been considered as part of these so-called challenge sessions include:

  • Stop collecting information;
  • Renew automatically;
  • Exclude low-risk activities;
  • Replace bespoke with standard;
  • Simplify and streamline;
  • Focus assessments on required information; and
  • Reduce ad-hoc requests.

Initial proposals for reform of all the above policy areas should be published for public comment by the end of this year. Stakeholders will therefore have a further opportunity to shape plans for reform before implementation plans are developed. The latter (which will need to be agreed by Defra ministers) are due to be published in March 2014. The environmental information obligations that have been examined so far currently take businesses over four million work hours per year at a cost of around £180 million. Initial proposals that are under consideration could save nearly 900,000 work hours and £40 million per year – equivalent to around a 20 per cent saving. (See Figure 2)

Stakeholder engagement
A spring clean is much needed and as such EEF very much welcomes this bold initiative by Defra. We strongly support its vision and are ready to work with government and its agencies to make this a reality for manufacturing companies. It will provide opportunities for business and also deliver environmental benefits by making compliance simpler.” (Gareth Stace, Head of Climate, Energy and Environment, EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation)

Both the review and the Smarter Guidance and Data project have been extremely well supported in terms of stakeholder comments and input, including from the IES. The website has received over 6,000 visits since its launch in May and initial public feedback exercises on data and guidance attracted just over 400 individual respondents. This input provides extremely valuable information for the Smarter Guidance and Data team, and will become increasingly so as the project seeks to test initial proposals and plans for reform.

Sharon Holloway is a Product Manager for the Smarter Guidance Project at Defra. 

Vicky Midgley is a secondee to Defra from Veolia Environmental Services and is supporting the Smarter Data initiative.

To find out more about how you can get involved, follow @defraregs on Twitter or visit our website.
The Phase 1 report: guidance and obligations review on the review’s findings can be found here.