Guest Contribution

A Committee for the Future

by Paula Tiihonen, Finnish Senior Civil Servant & Committee for the Future Counsel

The Finnish Committee for the Future is a unique institution. It is one of the Parliament of Finland’s 16 standing committees. The Committee has 17 members who are all members of Parliament and represent different political parties. Its only task is to think about the future and work towards the best possible future for the people of Finland.  The Committee’s time perspective is long and its scale of issues broad. Situated at the core of political life it has a lot of power – though not legislative, it has the potential to take initiative and lead on vision..

What are the official tasks of the Committee for the Future?

  • to prepare parliamentary documents entrusted to it, such as Parliament’s response to the Government’s Report on the Future
  • to issue statements to other committees on matters related to the future when asked to do so
  • to discuss issues pertaining to future development factors and development models
  • to analyse research regarding the future, including methodology
  • to serve as the parliamentary body responsible for assessing technological development and its consequences for society.

What does this mean?

The Committee is tasked with deliberating factors that influence the development of the future, futures research and the impacts of technological development. Unlike other committees, it does not generally deal with legislative proposals. Instead, it is tasked with drafting the Parliament’s response to the Government’s report on the future (normally one report submitted each parliament) as well as, upon request, making submissions to other committees and doing preparatory work on other parliamentary matters assigned to it.

The Committee’s most important role is to tackle its own initiatives, its own projects. The power to decide its agenda is one of the key pillars in the strength of the Committee. From the very beginning it has had this initiative power. The Committee itself arranges its agenda and chooses its working methods completely independent of outside influence.

The Committee prepares studies on futures, proposes different options, highlights dangers and builds scenarios using methods of future research. This means that the Committee must create its own success and earn esteem for its work in each parliamentary four-year term. Of essential importance is the appointment of one MP to act as the coordinator or steering group chair for each project.

By virtue of its exceptional task and role, the Committee serves as a Parliamentary Think Tank and in this way also serves the parliamentary institution by obtaining and supplying information to support decision making and the appraisal of long-term effects of decisions.

Something of, the mindset of the Committee can be found in that the name was originally Committee of the Future, but was changed at the first meeting to Committee for the Future. I have worked on the Committee from the very beginning and I remember that it was felt that the new preposition reflected a proactive and positive grasp on the future.  Although often proposed, the name “Committee for the Future, Science and Technology” is not comprehensive, because it excludes innovations (technological and social) in addition to which it is above all unwieldy and tied to a particular time.

The Committee has a right to draft its own reports concerning the future which are then discussed in plenary session. Deliberation of so-called own matters in a plenary session, as a topical debate on the basis of reports, is certainly a bit problematic.  A proposed method to address this is one in which the Committee presents joint long-term parliamentary initiatives, but this would blur the significance of both the Committee and the nature of an initiative led institution in the long run. Similar problems can be seen in various other “ombudsman” organizations, including ombudsman for future generations. Those ombudsman that are part of parliamentary systems are strong ones, those working outside of the parliamentary system weak.

For all committees in Finland the corresponding minister/ ministry plays an important role. The Prime Minister, currently Mr. Jyrki Katainen, as the corresponding minister is the only appropriate choice for the Committee for the Future. If, for example, a minister for science, technology and innovation is appointed, the matters associated with substantive questions that his or her remit would include would be in practice future-related.

In accordance with the political system, it is the Prime Minister who chooses the theme for the Governmental Future report. There have been 7 reports:

-       1993 “Report on the Long-Term Future”

-       1996 “Part I “Finland and the Future of Europe”

-       1997 “Part II “Honest and Courageous – a Finland of Responsibility and Confidence”

-       2001 “A Finland of Balanced Development 2015”

-       2004 “A Good Society for People of All Ages”, a report on demographic development, demographic policy                       and preparation for a changing age structure.

-       2009 “Towards a Finland of Low Emissions”, a report on climate and energy policy

-       2013 “Sustainable Growth for Welfare”

Almost 20 years ago, it was determined that the theme of the first report on the future in the early 1990s would be, by virtue of the parliamentary debate that had preceded the Committee’s establishment, a general one. The theme covered all sectors and levels of political activity, starting from global development, extending to Europe and Finland and ending with the management of affairs institutionally always down to the local level, even to families.

The theme of the second report a few years later, in 1996, focused on Europe. Since then, the Prime Minister/Government has chosen the themes, dealing with important special issues, confined mainly to the national level.

In order to strengthen the political system specifically an active dialogue between the Parliament and the Government on the long-term future, it was deemed appropriate and timely to switch again to a multi-sector, broad and international deliberation of the future. The theme for the present parliamentary term “How Finland is equipped for success in a changing world”, the Finnish sustainable growth model in a changing world, again provides an opportunity for a general exploration of the state of Finland in a global world and the scenarios associated with it and a map of the future with alternative development paths. The general map of the future is an umbrella, underneath which are located special studies that the members of the Committee choose and direct.  Outlining Finland’s long-term position and alternatives in both the global and European environment in the Nordic countries and in the neighbourhood of Russia, is now especially important, given that on the level of Europe as a whole, the financial crisis has clearly highlighted uncertainties, structural problems and needs for change.

The Committee for the Future made the decision to choose four areas of study in autumn 2011:

1)   Sustainable Growth

2)   An Inspired Society

3)   Acquiring New Knowledge

4)   Can the Welfare Society Endure?

And from a methodical point of view further areas:

5)   Crowdsourcing

6)   Radical Technologies

The Committee for the Future is the only forum in the Parliament where all parties can appraise together the development of the entire political system against a time frame that is longer than that of day-to-day politics or a parliamentary term without unnecessary regional, chronological or sectoral limits.  Turmoil and uncertainties in the economy are currently elevating democracy and politics to the centre of interest in a new way.


 

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Dr. Paula Tiihonen is a senior civil servant from the Finnish Parliament.

She has worked 15 years in Bureaucracy (Government/Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Justice), 1 year in Science and almost 25 years in Democracy (Parliament) and after these years she always remembers when starting a lecture to say: “I am proud to be a civil servant”.

 

Posted by Future Justice on 7 February 2014