Blog Post

Horizon Scanning

During our work to establish Ombudspersons for Future Generations or their equivalents at all levels of governance, we have increasingly come across the practice of ‘horizon scanning’ as a popular trend. Horizon scanning is a term often better known and associated within the corporate world, used especially in sectors that need to take a longer view such as pension funds and insurance companies.  Tying in especially with businesses that deal in futures, horizon scanning is a rather bureaucratic term to describe the act of planning with an eye on the future and flagging up potential pitfalls, risks ahead and indeed opportunities that are present in a time horizon well beyond the normal quarterly market focus.

The practice is not exclusive to business and features within the internal strategising of some governments.  A current select committee hearing into horizon scanning in the UK Parliament highlighted some of the reasons that traditional horizon scanning is however not necessarily the best solution to ensure the integration of the long term into policy making.  We will take a look at the UK example to highlight the concept of Horizon Scanning within a broader context.

The definition offered is promising:  “A systematic examination of information to identify potential threats, risks, emerging issues and opportunities, beyond the Parliamentary term, allowing for better preparedness and the incorporation of mitigation and exploitation into the policy making process.”

This suggests that it is an approach that has the potential to cut through the relatively short sighted nature of parliamentary turnover and deliver long-term policy focus.  However digging further into the UK example this promising definition appears not to be backed up by a reality that is as encouraging. A report to the UK select committee prepared by Jon Day the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee titled Review of Cross-Government Horizon Scanning notes that:

“”Horizon scanning products are often lengthy, and poorly presented, making them harder to digest and easier to ignore. It is also rare for them to include policy implications or an analysis of how the information presented could be used to inform decision making.”

 We acknowledge that this evidence is only directly relevant to the case of the UK, however it is likely an indication of the state of future planning in many other states and indeed businesses worldwide.  The Oxford Martin Report released last month highlighted the need for a far greater focus on future proof policy initiatives on an international scale, our own work has also highlighted the fact that a short-term focus is the norm in the vast majority of policy planning and delivery worldwide.

Returning to the UK example it is telling that the primary recommendation of the report giving evidence to the select committee focused on lack of a central body to oversee future planning as the main concern.  Our own work has consistently highlighted this and the emphasis here is close to language we would use.: “Without central coordination there is no way to ensure genuinely cross-cutting horizon scanning output is robust, reaches the right people and informs policy areas. Coordination would encourage the spread of best practice and reduce duplication of effort whilst ensuring that the entire community is aware of priorities in this area.”

Horizon scanning as a phrase is ambiguous enough to mean many things, hence the need of a definition for the UK select committee.  Ensuring that long-term futures are embedded into decision-making needs central coordination but we would argue that this needs to be far more visible and independent than internal ministerial positions in order to be effective.  Indeed in order to be truly cross cutting a body that looks to the future should inform all areas of policy from a central position.  Our work has highlighted the best examples worldwide of what many would consider to be most closely aligned with their interpretation of horizon scanning. Bringing a dedicated institution, impartial and independent of government with access and ability to closely co-ordinate with other agencies can help to inform policy for the long term. Certainly this is necessary if we are to ensure any safe, fulfilling and dignified future for those who follow us.

Posted by Future Justice on 12 November 2013

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