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Public dialogue influences UK Government international policy position on the retention of leap seconds

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On Tuesday 30th June 2015, a leap second was added to the official time set by atomic clocks - the last minute of June 2015 had 61 seconds in it. Leap seconds are added to keep the clocks in sync with the Earth's rotation.

A Sciencewise-funded dialogue, commissioned by the National Measurement and Regulation Office (which is sponsored by BIS), has influenced the UK's policy position on this issue. The dialogue had been encouraged by the then Minister, the Rt Hon David Willetts MP, and the results were embraced by his successor, the Rt Hon Greg Clark MP, with the results being shared at international meetings in preparation for the key decision conference in November 2015.

Several proposals have been put forward to abolish leap seconds because they can cause problems for some computer systems. The issue is to be discussed and decided by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) at the World Radiocommunication Conference in Geneva in November 2015.

The UK Government policy position had always been in favour of leap seconds on the basis of public views. However, there was felt to be no real evidence on what public views were on this topic. The public dialogue supported by Sciencewise was designed to open up the debate on the issue, particularly the cultural and technical impacts, and fill this evidence gap, prior to the November 2015 conference.

The report of the evaluation of the dialogue project, published in June 2015, summarises the influence of the project. It states that in the autumn of 2014 the new Minister for Universities and Science, the Rt Hon Greg Clark MP, accepted the dialogue findings as evidence for the previous Minister’s position that the UK is in favour of retaining leap seconds. Ministerial support was reinforced when the dialogue report was published on 3rd February 2015; this Ministerial statement was that the dialogue "has helped inform policy on this issue".

Between September 2014 and March 2015, the NMO discussed the dialogue findings at three meetings with Ofcom. Ofcom leads the UK delegation at the World Radio Conference 2015. At these meetings the main findings of the dialogue report were explained, and UK delegates were encouraged to discuss the dialogue findings at international meetings with representatives of other countries. The website was mentioned as a resource to look at for representatives of other countries should they wish to learn more about the dialogue process and the stimuli created.

In addition, Robert Gunn, Director of Programmes and Estates at NMO, attended a Conference Preparatory Group (CPG) meeting of the Electronic Communications Committee (ECC) in Malta between the 12 and 16 January 2015. The ECC’s CPG is responsible for developing briefs, studies, and European Common Proposals for the World Radio Communication Conference in November 2015. Robert Gunn informed the representatives of other countries about the findings of the dialogue, encouraged them to undertake similar work, and pointed them to the website if they wanted to find out more.

The evaluation report provides evidence that stakeholders agreed that the UK position could now be informed by public views. Comments from post-dialogue stakeholder evaluation interviews include:

"We've done something nobody else has done in the world."

"They've got evidence when they go to international colleagues which is always good."

"There hasn't been enough dialogue about this anywhere in the world. It was necessary for the British Government to do this."

The evaluation report makes the point that this was an unusual framing for a public dialogue project in that it set out to provide evidence for the advice to  Minister on what was essentially a yes/no decision on the retention or not of leap seconds. The report concludes that the dialogue did meet its objectives and that it had been effective in filling the evidence gap on whether the public felt strongly that clock time should be linked to solar time.

The dialogue project started with desk research and interviews which identified key stakeholders. A stakeholder dialogue workshop was then held with 26 participants to clarify the spread of views on the issue; what the impacts of a decision might be, and on which interests and groups; and how the public should be involved. Stakeholders agreed it was important to consult the public and provided detailed guidance on the range and significance of the issues to be discussed by the public.

111 public participants then took part in workshops (meeting twice) in four locations across the UK - Belfast, Tamworth, Cardiff and Edinburgh. Over two-thirds of these participants felt the link between solar time and clock time was important or very important. There was therefore a clear preference to retain the link between clock time and solar time.

Two other dialogue activities were run, with similar results, although in the two pop-up dialogue events (in Kingston and Richmond in Surrey) participants were more indifferent to the issue. The digital strand of the dialogue - a website and online survey - had over 1,000 visits and 200 individuals responding. 61% of these respondents were strongly in favour of continuing to use leap seconds to keep clocks in time with the sun, and 68% said they would have concerns or feel angry if leap seconds were discontinued.

All these conclusions were summarised in the dialogue project report, which was presented in draft to the project oversight group and the NMO in September 2014, and published in February 2015. The results were presented to the various interests as outlined above, and directly influenced those discussions and resulting policy decisions.

See related project page: Leap Seconds