The impact of the coronavirus pandemic has shown clearly why governments need to prepare for an uncertain future. Could the pandemic be a redefining moment for how the UK government prepares for uncertainty, plans for the long term and thus builds resilience?
In September, the Health Foundation’s Chief Executive, Jennifer Dixon, hosted a webinar on the question, Overcoming short-termism: how can policymakers better prepare for the future?
The panel was made up of:
- Jonathan Boston, Professor of Public Policy in the School of Government at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
- Jill Rutter, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Government
- Dame Sally Davies, Master of Trinity College at the University of Cambridge, and former Chief Medical Officer for England.
Together they discussed the issues and considered the practical steps which can be taken now to strengthen capacity for long-term thinking and dealing with uncertainty in UK policymaking.
Long-term thinking in government means looking beyond the election cycle, anticipating future risks and taking action in the short term to achieve long-term goals. This is difficult for all of us, but particularly for governments, who tend to be focused on urgent issues and face political barriers to investing for the long term.
Our panel discussed the serious consequences of failing to think long term, particularly in health and environmental policy. They agreed that there is no silver bullet to improve and embed long-term thinking in government decision-making, but they discussed some important levers and enablers. These included: strengthening institutional voices for the future; policy commitment devices such as legal requirements; having champions for key issues; and supporting imagination in the civil service.
Continuing the conversation: Q&A with Jill Rutter
Our online audience submitted a wide range of questions for our panel. Here, Jill Rutter responds to some of the questions we didn’t have time to include in the live event.
What are the main barriers to long-term thinking in government decision-making?
The biggest problem is that the electoral cycle imposes a short time-horizon on most democratic governments. Politicians feel the need to act quickly, to deliver discernible benefits within their term in office to get re-elected. There is less return from tackling slow-burn problems where the benefits accrue in the future, or in investing in prevention rather than maintaining current services. That is particularly true where short-term action imposes costs. But there is also the problem of getting to grips with the future and uncertainty – it is easier to act within the realms of the known, than to plan for the unknown – but the impact of COVID-19 may increase the willingness to invest in resilience.
Can policymakers ever be held to account for the long-term impacts of their decisions?
This is hard and compounded by the speed at which ministers change jobs and policies chop and change. That applies to officials too and one of the government’s legitimate critiques of officials is that they change jobs and don’t see projects through. But imagine you are working on a project like HS2, which can take 30 years from concept to completion. No one is likely to stay with a project that long. The key thing is to have clear roadmaps and handover processes – and oblige anyone involved to hand over well – that was one of the things that worked really well in the Olympics.
Where should responsibility for planning for the future sit within government?
I think it has to sit at the centre but draw on wide expertise. Planning is impossible if people are all working to their own futures. Or it may be possible to establish a separate institution to look forward. But none of that absolves individual departments, agencies or services from doing regular future-proofing exercises. Better still, they need to open those up to external challenge.
How can civil servants be protected from short-term political pressure from ministers, so that they can take a longer-term view?
The duty of the civil service is to serve the government of the day – and if that government wants to think short-term, civil servants have to follow their agenda. I think there is a case for thinking about whether we should amend civil service duties – as they have in New Zealand – to give the civil service a separate ‘stewardship’ duty, to ensure their departments also have the capacity to deal with future possibilities and are able to undertake research and if necessary contingency planning under their own authority, without ministers being held to account for it.
I would also give chief scientific advisers more license to put big public concerns into the public domain, in the way Dame Sally Davies did as Chief Medical Officer (CMO) on anti-microbial resistance. The CMO is uniquely independent, but there is no reason we can’t have other inside experts able to push the agenda in a similar way.
Do we need a greater diversity of voices and actors to future-proof policy development? If so, who do we need to involve?
Yes. The research councils already fund a lot of forward-looking research and the fact that the government now produces departmental ‘areas of research interest’ should give the outside world a better indication of what they are thinking they need to know more about.
Better still would be to open those up to debate and challenge (and some are lamentably skimpy). But government also needs to engage the public more, in debates about what future they would like to see. The recent citizens’ Climate Assembly commissioned by six parliamentary select committees shows how useful that can be in discussing difficult long-term challenges and potentially creating more political space to solve them.
Do you think COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on how government plans for an uncertain future – not just for pandemics, but the range of external shocks and ‘slow-burn’ issues that we face?
Yes, I think it will reinforce the need for resilience planning and make it easier to protect budgets for that. But the danger is, just as we were caught out this time by ‘the wrong kind of pandemic’, because it was a SARS-like infection not the flu which was the highest risk on the National Risk Register, we will throw resources at the last crisis, not the next one.
This content originally featured in our email newsletter, which explores perspectives and expert opinion on a different health or health care topic each month.