Looking to the Future to Inform Better Policy-Making

Martin Glasspool, Central Team Leader at the UK Government’s Foresight Programme, joined Policy Lunchbox yesterday (6 October) to discuss horizon-scanning and the work of Foresight. During a fascinating presentation Martin introduced us to various futures techniques, such as scenario building and ‘wind tunnelling’, and how Foresight has made use of these to contribute to better policy-making at home and internationally.

The Foresight programme “aims to bridge the gap in policy-making between the short and the long term”, in the words of Prof. Sir John Beddington, Government Chief Scientific Advisor and head of the Government Office for Science, in which Foresight sits.

To tackle 21st century challenges effectively policy-makers must try to understand what the future might look like. Martin introduced the ‘evidence-based policy paradox’ to explain how difficult this in fact is. Policy is about solutions for the future but conventional ‘evidence’ is about the past. This paradox can be resolved: when uncertainty is low, use projections and modelling, and when uncertainty is high, use futures techniques. Martin acknowledged that there are dangers in using both of these approaches: the evidence on which your projections are based could have been collected too late, or badly, leading to poorly constructed models. The past can never be a perfect guide to the future. Foresight helps policy-makers to think systematically about the future, and to challenge their presumptions about what the future might be like.

By embedding their policy proposals in projections of the future, policy-makers can test their likely efficacy, leading to better policy-making and cost-savings.

Martin highlighted a number of Foresight’s projects, of which it usually runs three to four at any one time, to Policy Lunchbox. The projects run for two years, looking up to 50 – 100 years into the future, and have tackled ‘grand challenges’ such as climate change and food security. The findings of a project on ‘Global Food and Farming Futures’ will be launched in Spring 2011, with another on the ‘International Dimensions of Climate Change’ due out this autumn. These reports will be followed by a year’s intensive work with policy-makers, to help them to embed the reports’ suggestions in policy, and their impact will then be assessed two years hence.

The Foresight Horizon Scanning Centre forms another strand of Foresight’s work, running shorter, more reactive, projects, looking 10-15 years into the future. Horizon scanning, said Martin, was about ‘thinking differently in a structured way, by looking at less usual information’. The Horizon Scanning Centre picks up ‘weak signals’ about emerging issues by examining blogs, articles and grey literature, for example. Current ongoing projects include ‘Technology and Innovation Futures’, to be published this year.

In discussing the impact of Foresight’s work, Martin made clear how fundamental this is to Foresight’s operation. It was clear that Foresight had informed Government policy-making, including influencing a shift towards cross-Departmental buy-in to tackling obesity, and a doubling in the annual budget for flood defences, to name two examples.

Martin was positive about policy-makers’ use of futures techniques. Whilst this way of thinking is by no means universal across Government, many Departments have their own futures teams and policy-makers’ understanding about the importance of looking into the future, to inform better policy-making, is growing. Foresight is funded through the Science Budget and its future is no more certain than that of other elements of Government, with the Comprehensive Spending Review taking place in just two weeks. It’s clear however that Foresight is doing important work and it can only be hoped that this has been recognised.

Foresight provide a number of tools for those interested in using futures techniques in their own work. Have a look at the Foresight website for details of the Sigma Scan and the Horizon Scanning Centre toolkit.

Foresight is also interested in hearing from Learned Societies and others regarding suggestions for experts to be involved in their reports. Contact the team through the website for information.