Seeing the wood for the trees: towards a systems approach to long-term governance

09 May 2018

Portrait of Dr Jaakko Kuosmanen

by Dr Jaakko Kuosmanen

Dr Jaakko Kuosmanen is the Coordinator of the Oxford Martin School Programme on Human Rights for Future Generations and a James Martin Research Fellow at the Law Faculty. Jaakko received his PhD at the University of Edinburgh, and he has previously w...

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The problem of 'short termism' in modern politics is one of the most prevalent challenges facing the world in the 21st century. This was highlighted in the Oxford Martin School’s 2013 report Now for the Long-Term.

The report explored the growing gridlock in solving key global challenges, and reflected the concerns and frustrations encountered by many of the School's academics working on 21st century issues ranging from geoengineering to infectious diseases to food security.

Global governance efforts to tackle dangerous climate change are limited. In many parts of the world there are weak or non-existing institutions assisting those escaping from conflict areas. Biodiversity is dropping below safe levels for the support and well-being of human societies.

There have been quite a few developments in efforts to tackle the challenge of ‘short-termism’ or ‘presentist bias’. These include constitutional clauses and other legal instruments, offices of future commissioners, parliamentary committees on the future, foresight units, and funding instruments bringing scientific research closer to decision-making.

Much more still remains to be done. In my Chief of Innovation role in Demos Helsinki I work with governments around the world helping them to improve strategic long-term steering capabilities with foresight and policy experimentation tools. This work builds on the long-term governance work done during our Martin School Programme on Human Rights for Future Generations.

Why do we fail to take the future more seriously?

Is it because of our electoral cycles? Or, more fundamentally, because of our human psychology (cognitive biases leaning individual decision-making towards the present)?

There are many underlying drivers of short-termism. Lack of data about the things we aim to govern, dysfunctional institutions, and humanity's inability (and in parts unwillingness!) to set sights to the future can all be contributing factors.

The design of long-term governing institutions generally focuses on tackling these drivers. For example, legal instruments aim to narrow the institutionalised scope of decision-making in which incentives for short-termism exist. As well, ‘foresight units’ and networks aim to clarify the epistemic nature of the governing environment, making it potentially easier to pursue large-scale policy initiatives. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), for example, is developing 'Jetson', a predictive analytics platform for displacement.

There are positive developments in sight due to advances in science. AI and big data can substantially increase foresight capabilities and humanity’s ability to understand the epistemic challenges of our time. Developments in research on neuro/cognitive psychology and human enhancement can also help take into consideration our individual psychological traits and collective dynamics that feed into short-termism in public governance.

Institutional Design in Circumstances of Complexity

The rapidly changing and complex policy environment requires rethinking also the approach to institutional design. In many governments I have witnessed early signs of shifts away from siloed institutional mechanisms and towards a systems approach to long-term governance. In a systems approach, those designing or evaluating governing institutions examine the institutional framework as an interconnected whole operating in a complex and multifaceted environment.

Ultimately, as also highlighted in a recent OECD report, institutionalised systems supporting governance in the 21st Century policy environment are context-specific. But guidelines for institutional design exist nevertheless. At the very core of a systems approach to long term governance there are six key principles.

  • In experimental governance ideas are piloted in controlled settings either to validate hypotheses relating to their impact, to build evidence, or to gradually introduce interventions to ensure reducing risk of failure. Finland, for example, has an experimentation programme in the government programme - bringing policy experimentation to the highest level of political agenda anywhere in the world. The government also celebrates Day of Failure annually (and yes, there really is an International Day of Failure!).
  • ‘What Works’ has become a popular term within UK government circles. Scientific research increases understanding of the circumstances in which policy design and implementation takes place and provides a foundation for improved evaluation in long-term strategic planning.
  • Governance of the long-term is not simply about addressing challenges in time. It is also about working with varying degrees of uncertainty. A system’s ability to respond to disruptions and to spring back to business-as-usual is a necessary condition for the pursuit of long-term objectives.
  • Many challenges of the current century require a whole-of-government approach, at the centre of which are purpose-driven strategic steering, cross-departmental policy coordination and outcome-based Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

By adopting a systems approach and following the principles of long-term governance governments can be better prepared to steer through time than they are in the present. Some voices are calling for more radical approaches to change. Astrophysicist Lord Rees for example, believes “only an enlightened despot could push through the measures needed to navigate the 21st century safely”.

In the current national and international political climate it seems evident that we are still far from a situation where governments and public bodies are looking beyond the short-term. Before turning to such desperate measures as ‘enlightened despots’, how about we try systems approach to institutional design first.

Dr. Jaakko Kuosmanen is the Chief of Innovation at the think tank, Demos Helsinki. He works with governments around the world, helping them to improve strategic long-term steering capabilities with foresight and policy experimentation tools. Before joining Demos Jaakko worked as a James Martin Research Fellow and Programme Coordinator of the Martin School Programme on Human Rights for Future Generations. Jaakko is a member of the Finnish Prime Minister’s Office Foresight Steering Group, and he is currently co-editing a book on human rights and the future for Oxford University Press.

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.