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Regulatory Impact Assessments (RIAs) are often not used in the right way, according to a report published today by the National Audit Office. The report finds that the purpose of RIAs is not always understood, there is a lack of clarity in the presentation of the analysis and persistent weaknesses in the assessments. As a result, in many cases RIAs have not offered a robust challenge to proposals to regulate. 

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This is the third evaluation of RIAs published by the National Audit Office, this year expanded to look at the extent to which RIA practice was integrated into departments’ culture. The report finds that while there are areas of good practice, most notably from the DTI, other departments have been slow to improve the quality of RIAs and integrate them into the policy-making process. The report makes recommendations for departments to improve their staff’s awareness and use of assessments.

The NAO analysed a sample of RIAs from four government departments – the Department of Trade and Industry, the Home Office, the Department for Transport and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The quality of RIAs was mixed, but certain elements within them were generally undertaken well, such as stakeholder consultation. The weakest area was the consideration of the level of compliance with the proposed regulation, where departments too often assume that new regulations will be fully complied with and do not consider the impact of lower levels of compliance. The NAO found weaknesses in how costs and benefits were assessed. The NAO also found insufficient evidence of plans being developed for successful implementation and that little thought is given to evaluating the effect of regulations after they are implemented.

Some RIAs included irrelevant detail, which obscured the key information needed to inform decision-making. In general, RIAs are still often seen as a paper-output rather than being integral to the process of policy-making. Departments, however, are making efforts to ensure that impact assessment is an integral part of the policy-making process. According to today’s report, officials should ensure that the RIA is necessary, start the assessment early, integrate it into the decision-making process and make greater and earlier use of departmental experts.

Departments need to challenge the way in which staff perceive and use impact assessment in order to improve the chances of influencing policy decisions and delivering better outcomes. The Department of Trade and Industry has been the most proactive in disseminating good practice and in providing a robust challenge function to policy teams. Departments are taking positive steps, such as using Board Level Champions to promote RIAs, but could do more to use existing expertise, to give more information and training to policy makers and to clarify responsibility for delivering RIAs. The Better Regulation Executive also has an important role to play in this process.

“Regulatory Impact Assessments are a vital tool for Government to ensure that it is not introducing unnecessary or excessive regulation. Although they have been in use for several years, many are still failing to perform their intended function properly. Departments must address the reasons why they have been so slow at making improvements to the process of assessing the impact of regulation.”

Sir John Bourn


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