Long-term strategic planning in government

The latest session of the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) inquiry into “Whitehall’s capacity to face future challenges” received higher than usual media attention last month due to the use of management jargon and Yes Minister style soundbites. Yet the session raised important, if not novel, concerns about the role of horizon scanning and long-term planning in government, and how the ‘machinery of government supports decision making by ministers’.

David Walker, from The Guardian, highlighted the risks of short-term political thinking and siloed thinking in his article on December 15th. He also questioned the  Treasury’s inability or reluctance to ‘relate its spending control and medium run plans to others’ attempts to peer dimly through the darkness’. Perhaps PASC took note, the Treasury Permanent Secretary, Sir Nicholas MacPherson appeared in front of the committee on 13 January 2015.

At SOIF, we see an imbalance between supply and demand for foresight in government. While there remain some supply constraints (structures and people), the real challenge is to address low demand, which stems from lack of awareness of the role horizon scanning can play, ineffective leadership and absence in many policy areas of a whole-of-government strategy.

Parliament has a role to play in promoting the use of horizon scanning, by initiating national debates and ensuring that Select Committee inquiries include consideration of longer term questions even when addressing a pressing issue of the day.

Barriers to foresight in government

Officials and ministers tend to be rewarded for how they deal with urgent matters. This is of course an important skill. But as long there is more reward in ‘rising to the occasion’ rather than preventing the occasion arising in the first place, analysis and action will be skewed to the short-term.

Other well known factors that militate against long-term analysis and strategic planning are the electoral cycle for politicians; and the performance management framework used to assess the work of civil servants, which rarely encourages devoting time to prospective thinking on a departmental level, and even less so collectively across Whitehall and beyond.

By dwelling on the past and present at the expense of the future, we miss big opportunities as well as encountering nasty but avoidable surprises. The opportunity cost of failing to seize an opportunity is often greater than the better publicised cost of something bad befalling us.

Addressing demand constraints

To address the demand constraints we suggest:

  • Civil Service leaders make foresight a core skill for future civil servants.
  • permanent secretaries of departments become champions of horizon scanning, encourage its take-up and ask for quarterly reports on the use of horizon scanning in their departments
  • HM Treasury makes the production of a horizon scanning study one of the requirements for its assessment of departmental plans, for example as part of the spending review process
  • Cross-departmental foresight projects are commissioned as a way of identifying policies that different departments might carry out to reach a shared goal.
  • Policy-makers are expected to include an assessment of future trends and possible future scenarios in their policy work.
  • Effective use of horizon scanning is made a performance indicator for civil servants to ensure there are incentives for analysts and policy-makers to join horizon scanning efforts.
  • Parliament initiates debates about policies which will have an impact beyond the next election.
  • The Liaison Committee asks Select Committees to make an analysis of trends and drivers of change part of the standard scope of inquiries.
  • Parliament establishes a Committee for the Future, either alongside PASC or as a joint Committee.

These views form part of our written evidence to PASC which can be accessed here.