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25th Anniversary series: 2010 – The Post-Crash Election: Strategic Futures And Government

May 20, 2015

Watching the results of the General Election on the night of 7/8 May, it seemed hardly any time at all since I was sitting in the same chair, watching the 2010 Election, with all the attendant uncertainty about who had won, and in fact whether anyone had won. Harold Wilson’s famous maxim that “a week is a long time in politics” counterweighed by the fact that those five years seemed a very SHORT time in politics.

And thereby hangs a very important factor in the nature of politics and government. Given a five-year term, a Government has two or at most three years to be bold. For the second half of its term of office it will be battening down the hatches and clearing the decks on the ship of state for the uncertain weather of an Election campaign.

For this reason, it is often supposed that Governments are not very interested in strategy. Keynes’ dictum (often misunderstood), “in the long run we are all dead” might apply as well to politics as it did to economics.

However the last Parliament has seen a shift. The Financial Crash of 2008 was the biggest economic shock since the Great Crash of 1929. Such events led politicians and others to ask what more can be done to look for other “icebergs” ahead. Indeed the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) made precisely this connection in its report – published in March 2015 – on the capacity of Whitehall to address future challenges.

The PASC, together with the Science & Technology Committee have both published two reports endorsing the use of strategic futures in Government, and encouraging Government to make more use of strategic futures, and to co-ordinate its resources for doing so. SAMI has provided written and oral evidence to the Committees.

Click to access 4SAMI-PASC-submission2014.pdf

The Government has responded positively. In March 2014 it set up a Horizon Scanning Programme Team in the Cabinet Office to co-ordinate and improve strategic futures work across Whitehall, and established a Cabinet Secretary’s Advisory Group, comprising many of the great and good of the UK civil service, to give a steer to the Team’s work, and an Oversight Group, chaired by John Day, a doughty champion of strategic futures work.

Government Departments are spending more time on strategic futures. SAMI has been pleased to work with a number of Departments, most recently DEFRA, DfT, DfiD, BIS, the Government Office for Science, and HMRC. We also provide training on ‘Horizon Scanning for Strategy and Policy Development’ to all government departments

This is all positive, and SAMI believes that strategic futures are fundamental to effective policy-making; but more remains to be done. The 2010 Election – and its aftermath – forced politicians to ask difficult questions about what is the role of Government, when there is less money for Government to spend. Although the gradual economic recovery may have eased things a little, there remains a substantial deficit, there is a large legacy of debt to be paid for, and – in a globalised economy – it becomes harder to keep track of businesses and wealthy individuals for tax purposes. The question will not go away.

Some have argued for a more fundamental review of the purpose and priorities of government. Geoff Llewellyn, a SAMI Fellow, argued the case for a review of the silo structure of Government – established by Haldane almost 100 years ago – and the use of technology to achieve a transformation to a citizen-focused approach.

Others are thinking similar thoughts. Think Tanks are ruminating away. GovernUp, a cross-party group led by the MPs John Healey and Nick Herbert, is a self-styled “project for effective government”.

The economic crash and the aftermath of the 2010 Election have sparked a debate that continues today. The transformative potential of new technology and big data, and the changes in society, as people become more technologically adept, and more demanding as consumers, means that Governments will have no option but to remain firmly focused on strategic futures.

Written by David Lye.

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