'Long-term thinking must be cornerstone of policy making'

23 October 2013

© Julia Banfield

"Governments must embed flexibility and resilience into long-term planning," the Oxford Martin School’s Head of Policy, Natalie Day, told a House of Commons committee this morning (23 October). Giving evidence to the Select Committee on Science and Technology at its session on Government Horizon Scanning, she stressed the importance of thinking about the long term, saying this approach should be “the bedrock of policy”.

Also giving their views to the committee were Alun Huw Williams, Principal of SAMI Consulting, and Doug McKay, Vice President of International Organisations at Shell International. Ms Day explained that as well as imagining the future, governments need to ensure they have the flexibility to deal with unexpected events that the decades ahead might bring, and that they should incorporate a diversity of viewpoints, adding: “Part of the challenge is how to embed that across the decision-making structures and policy making, so that it is not compartmentalised.”

Describing the work of the Oxford Martin School on influencing policy, she said: “Our researchers are constantly frustrated by what they perceive to be increasing short-termism. That is why we have produced a report, Now for the Long Term, on how to overcome gridlock on embedding longer-term thinking. We look at how it could be useful for governments to invest in innovative institutions set aside from daily politics, which can provide input to government without being buffeted around by issues of the day. They would be accountable and transparent but able to provide the longer-term analysis required.

“The School’s academics are carrying out interdisciplinary research on long-term challenges, and many are very engaged with government departments and politicians. Our geoengineering team for example have been working very closely with the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the research council on negative emissions technologies.”

Scenario planning was useful but tended to focus on worst possible outcomes, she said, whereas planning should also take account of the “incredible potential” to shape a country’s long-term vision.

Asked about the costs involved with planning for the long term, she responded: “It is a critical part of the conversation. Obviously the costs, for example on climate change, may be borne today but the benefits may not be seen for some time. We are asking governments to make quite difficult policy decisions that might have severe complications for the short term but in the longer term will result in a more sustainable, equitable and resilient environment for future generations. The benefits might be beyond the electoral term and governments have to find a way to balance their day-to-day responsibilities with longer-term responsibilities.”

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