Government Horizon Scanning – Implementation Issues

Ecology and ecosystems change rapidly with human activity and developing climate alteration. As we witness increasing extreme flooding, decline of bees, a changing climate and an increase in invasive species and diseases threatening our forests, it is important that we have the foresight to prepare and mitigate disastrous ecological predicaments. By increasing and centralising horizon scanning within government we can hope to avoid repeat encounters of situations like the ash dieback devastation.

Horizon scanning is a term used to describe the ability to foresee risks, issues, threats and opportunities by examining trends, patterns and any developing information. This tool can be highly beneficial for long-term planning but was previously not used effectively by the British government. This was due to lack of organisation, collaboration and expertise. With an ever-changing and fast-paced world, horizon scanning needs to become an integral part of clever decision making.

As part of a movement to increase evidence-based policy and to improve horizon scanning, the government created a Horizon Scanning Programme which hoped to group existing horizon scanning resources last July. The programme is based in the Cabinet Office, is headed by the cabinet secretary and run by civil servants. By centralising the role of horizon scanning, it is hoped that knowledge gained can be disseminated and connected more effectively.

The programme aims to improve horizon scanning capabilities by:

  • Ensuring key messages are delivered to the right departments at the most effective levels

  • Confirming all government organisations and departments have a common understanding and procedure for horizon scanning

  • Reduce duplication of findings and research by pooling information and keeping all relevant departments informed

The programme hoped to work closely with Foresight Horizon Scanning Centre of the Government Office for Science. Established in 2005, Foresight uses horizon scanning to try and increase the ability of government to make long term plans and create evidence-based discussions. The Centre’s projects have worked on issues such as Global Food and Farming Futures, International Dimension of Climate change and Land use futures. Whilst the centre set up at GO Science is well constructed and produces regular, scientifically-evidenced reports on key issues, its location in government causes it to struggle to have a strong  cross-departmental influence. Foresight is long-standing and is reputable for its “scientific rigour”, however, calls for it to be moved from Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to the Cabinet Office have been ignored. This has been partially corrected by the new programme being more centralised, however a recent report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee argues that the new programme still overlooks the full potential for Foresight. By ignoring calls to locate Foresight to the Cabinet alongside the new programme, the government are wasting a valuable resource that is already fulfilling many goals of the new programme.

Furthermore, Andrew Miller MP accuses the programme of being a “governmental echo chamber” as it does not involve collaboration with valuable sources outside of government – such as scientists and scientific representative bodies. He argues that by excluding the option for discussion and interrogation of hypotheses the scanning programme is not fulfilling its potential.  This is particularly problematic for scientists and organisations like the British Ecological Society trying to inform policy makers about areas in which they are experts. It is not possible for a horizon scanning programme of civil servants to effectively identify long-term challenges and trends without consulting relevant specialists and researchers.

Another criticism of the programme is that it does not openly display its activities online or elsewhere. There have been no publications or any evidence of activity since the scanning programme was unannounced. This lack of transparency about how and what it is accomplishing is indicative of a programme in slow development and reduces accessibility for valuable consultation.

The report by the Select Committee is a positive step towards improving this programme and shaping it into an effective horizon-scanning tool that incorporates all current resources. The report recommends that Foresight be integrated into the Cabinet and that the new programme both increases its transparency and opens its doors to sources of valuable knowledge. By following these recommendations and centralising Foresight’s role, the government has the opportunity to utilise a beneficial resource for the future.