Will the UK Government’s new Horizon Scanning programme work?

Over the past year and a half the UK has invested a lot of political capital and bureaucratic resources in horizon scanning (see my Guardian article). To those of us who witnessed its managed decline between 2009-11 after a promising start (2005-2008), this rapid return of favour was a sign either that government had ‘got it’, or that our discipline was mature enough to be subject to the usual Westminster whims and cycles.

Evidence seems to be mounting in favour of the latter. Despite genuine interest and a decent grasp of what it’s about on the part of the Cabinet Secretary and his Minister (watch the last evidence session of the Parliamentary Select Committee enquiry on Horizon Scanning here), the way horizon scanning is being projected into departments is almost guaranteed to make this cycle even shorter than the last one.

For horizon scanning to have any value, it needs to challenge accepted ways of doing things (in this instance, policy). For it to have any effect, it needs a mechanism for changing ways of doing things. The way it has been set up this second time around, following Jon Day’s review published just over a year ago, pretty much guarantees it neither.

First of all, its written products are being produced by government departments. They are likely therefore to reflect the thinking going on in government departments. One positive thing, promised by Oliver Letwin at the Committee session, is that these documents will be made public “as reports emerge”, so some retrospective challenge at least may be possible. (I can’t find anything on the website yet though.)

Second, the manner in which these products should influence policy is as nebulous as it has ever been. Despite enlisting the presence of Whitehall’s top mandarins on its quarterly CSAG committee, take-up into policy will continue to be on an ad hoc basis. I’m not underestimating the difficulty of developing a formal mechanism, which would inevitably challenge the authority of senior policy officials in departments. But in its absence, foresight will only influence on the poorly defended margins.

One of the work areas highlighted at the Select Committee session, which does seem ready to ‘try out’ on policy, is Emerging Technologies. This strand of work started well before the new Horizon Scanning programme was launched, and builds on projects undertaken by the GO-Science Horizon Scanning Centre and BIS with the encouragement of David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science. It will be interesting to follow how departments react to the report, and – more importantly – what they do differently.

If [our horizon scanning programme] doesn’t work, we’ll “pack up and go home”, Letwin promised the Committee. Given that he himself may be packing up in little over a year, that in itself doesn’t inspire much confidence in the future of government horizon scanning. But perhaps even more of a worry is that fact that the new structures being put in place aren’t providing themselves with the means to succeed.