Government horizon scanning - Science and Technology Committee Contents


Horizon scanning, in its broadest sense, is an attempt to systematically imagine the future in order to better plan a response. In the absence of a crystal ball, it can help organisations to detect signals, identify trends and think more inventively about what the future might hold, enabling them to capitalise on opportunities and better mitigate threats. It is a crucial activity for any organisation tasked with long-term decision-making.

Horizon scanning is currently enjoying much popularity in government, but the landscape for its execution has long been in flux. In recent years, the Government Office for Science's Foresight Unit has been the one consistent feature of an ever-changing arrangement of short-lived units and forums, and is highly regarded for the scientific rigour of its work. We have also glimpsed pockets of good practice in other departments. However, much of horizon scanning taking place in government today does not deliver the benefit that it is capable of.

The Day review—a Cabinet-led evaluation of cross-government horizon scanning—highlighted several issues: historically, government horizon scanning has been badly coordinated, with departmental silos leading to duplication of effort and loss of insight. Untrained officials have struggled to interpret poorly presented outputs with little obvious policy relevance, making the findings of horizon scanning easy to ignore. The result has been an overabundance of reports that have delivered little in the way of policy change. The review proposed a simple solution: a new hub of cross-departmental horizon scanning, located in the Cabinet Office, at the heart of Government. This recommendation was promptly implemented, and we congratulate the Government for so swiftly acknowledging and acting on the need for change.

However, close scrutiny of the new programme reveals substantial weaknesses. Firstly, it does not give sufficient weight to the valuable role to be played by the Government Office for Science (GO-Science). The relationship between the new programme and GO-Science's long-established (and much lauded) Foresight Unit is ill-defined and fails to exploit the expertise that exists across GO-Science and its networks. The decision to situate the new programme in the Cabinet Office was the correct one, but nevertheless creates a departmental divide between the two units and compounds the historic error made in locating GO-Science in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills: an error that successive administrations have failed to correct. We consider Foresight's lack of cross-departmental influence to be an unfortunate side-effect of its non-central location and, while we are pleased that this mistake has not been repeated for the new programme, its Cabinet Office location accentuates the incongruity of GO-Science's position. We therefore recommend that GO-Science be relocated to the Cabinet Office.

A second weakness is the programme's apparent lack of clarity—or, at the very least, transparency—regarding its activities. The Minister makes impressive claims about the programme's plans to engage and interact with a wide audience, but we have seen nothing to substantiate these and no evidence of progress being made. Since the programme was first announced nearly a year ago it has failed to publish a single output or provide any public update on its activities. We consider this lack of information—or even a dedicated web presence—to lay a poor foundation for the Minister's ambitions.

Finally, we are extremely concerned that the new programme offers no opportunity for external views to be heard. Horizon scanning should be a way of opening the Government's eyes to a wide array of possible futures; these simply cannot be imagined by Civil Servants alone. We therefore make a number of recommendations aimed at opening up the programme to greater external input, transforming what we fear may currently be an echo chamber for government views into a more useful hub for genuine futures thinking.

In our view, these failings can be attributed, in part, to a lack of clear ministerial oversight in the early stages of the programme's development. We hope that this report will go some way towards rectifying these shortcomings while the programme is still in its infancy.

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Prepared 4 May 2014