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Let’s Not Leap to Conclusions: Public Opinion on Leap Seconds in the United Kingdom

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ainsley Schoff
September 2, 2021

We tend to take time for granted. Not only do we think we have all the time in the world when many would argue our lives are short, but also we believe the clock will reliably keep ticking just as the sun reliably rises and sets. As it turns out, there are people dedicated to making sure that happens and it takes a particular expertise to keep our clocks aligned with the earth’s rotation. Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) is the timescale used across the globe, agreed upon internationally and governed by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

As most of us learned in elementary school, time has been determined historically by the earth’s rotation and the sun’s location in the sky. But this concept becomes more complicated when you learn that the earth’s rotation is irregular and actually is slowing down. The UTC is responsible for adjusting our time on earth to match solar time. To adjust for this difference, the UTC implements “leap seconds” that account for the gap and synchronize clock time to solar time. This process has been going on for years under the ITU, but recently it came under scrutiny as experts began to express concern about the synchronization’s effect on computers and communication networks. In 2012 the ITU Radiocommunication Assembly took a proposal under consideration that would cease this synchronization; the international vote was postponed to 2015 to provide time for further study.

In practice, if we eliminated leap seconds, eventually the sun would no longer be directly overhead at noon and may set earlier in the day. While these circumstances would take many years to take effect, it could have cultural impacts, especially for religious practices based on time of day. To better inform its decision, United Kingdom policymakers engaged a public dialogue to investigate public opinion of non-synchronization, funding and managing it through the National Measurement Office and Sciencewise, a government department aimed at bringing together scientists, government and the public to explore the impact of science and technology on our lives. In total, the collaboration included 21 stakeholders and 111 participants across five workshops—one national stakeholder workshop and four public weekend-long workshops in four different locations across the UK.

The national stakeholder workshop brought together representatives from fields related to navigation, astronomy, meteorology, information technology, communications, religion, engineering and time measurement. Their purpose was to better understand leap seconds’ implications on all of these sectors, how to solve the issues it posed and how to share an understanding of the problem with the public. Their findings then were shared with the public in the four location-based workshops.

The 111 participant criteria was set for a mix of different ages, genders, demographic classification and level of scientific knowledge. Given the importance of time on many religious practices, the organizers also set a religion criteria, asking for at least seven participants with no religion, at least six Christian and eight from Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan, Sikh or Jewish backgrounds. All participants were required to be local to the area and attend both sessions, offered in Edinburgh, Belfast, Tamworth and Cardiff. They focused on cultural implications of eliminating leap seconds and participants offered a clear preference of maintaining the link between clock time and solar time. Although this had technical implications, participants felt programmers should be capable of finding workarounds.

After these dialogues concluded, organizers set up two pop-up dialogues in London. Interestingly, without information or expert panels to answer questions, participants were largely indifferent to the issue, demonstrating that for such complex problems the public needs time and directed learning. The organizers also launched a website to further confer public opinion including an online survey with nearly 200 responses that helped inform the UK’s position. Similar to the public dialogues, more than half surveyed were in favor of continuing to use leap seconds.

The public engagement program was considered a success. Organizers had received a clear preference on the UK public’s opinion about the continued use of leap seconds that could be brought to UK policymakers and international governing groups. It set a good example of how other countries could gather public opinion on the use of leap seconds and, perhaps more important, how governments can investigate public opinion about other complex technological issues. These dialogues offer a model to talk about problems that require expertise and show that no matter how complex a problem, there is a way to effectively explain the issue and gather opinion. This model could draw perspectives about time zones, daylight savings, complex health care policy, universal income, taxes, financial markets or any other challenging issue.

The most encouraging element of this project was the participant satisfaction. Across the board, participants in the public dialogues agreed or strongly agreed that they had benefited personally from the project. This kind of public engagement and empowerment is more likely to bring these citizens back to the table for other important issues, keeping them informed and involved in the democratic decisionmaking process.

What happened at the ITU vote to eliminate the leap second? They decided they still needed further information and delayed the proposal vote until 2023.

To learn more about this case, visit https://participedia.net/case/5681. To read about other innovative applications of public participation, visit www.participedia.net.

Author: Ainsley Schoff is pursuing a master’s degree in public administration at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. She is passionate about economics, public policy, agriculture and the environment, and how harnessing data can help solve the world’s problems. Before her studies she spent years managing large-scale farms in New Zealand. She obtained her undergraduate degree from George Washington University. She can be reached at: [email protected].

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