Government horizon scanning - Science and Technology Committee Contents

1  Introduction


1. It is human nature to think and, on occasion, worry about the future and it is therefore unsurprising that we sometimes attempt to predict it. We draw confidence from the belief that a future foreseen can be better managed, its opportunities capitalised on and its threats mitigated, if not always prevented. In some circumstances, science has helped us to become relatively adept at predicting the future: the Met Office, for example, uses sophisticated scientific techniques to deliver a high degree of accuracy in its short-term forecasting.[1] Unfortunately, as real-world events—from natural disasters, to global political and economic crises and the emergence of new technologies—repeatedly demonstrate, such accuracy is rarely possible in the medium to long-term. The future is therefore likely to always retain its ability to surprise us.[2]

2. This is problematic for governments, whose responsibility it is to prepare policies fit for an inherently unpredictable future while managing an already complex present, often under the pressure of a short-term parliamentary cycle. Governments have therefore developed a range of strategies intended to help them prepare for the long-term.[3] One strategy favoured by the current UK administration is horizon scanning: an attempt to systematically imagine rather than predict the future so that it can be better managed when it arrives, whatever form it may take. In late 2012, as part of its efforts to ensure that horizon scanning was being used effectively to inform policy making, the Government commissioned a cross-departmental review led by Jon Day, Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. The Day review, published in January 2013, concluded that while the UK did not "lack the resources to conduct horizon scanning", a deficit of "truly cross-governmental oversight and coordination" had prevented it from reaching (and influencing) the relevant audiences.[4] Mr Day recommended action to "improve upon and formalise the structures for directing work and making use of the end product".[5] Consequently, in July 2013 the Government announced that it would be "taking a new, joined-up approach" to cross-departmental horizon scanning through the creation of a new horizon scanning programme.[6] Included within the remit of this programme was the formation of two new steering groups to be located in the Cabinet Office and operated under the leadership of the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood. According to the Government, these groups would share best practice in horizon scanning, minimise duplication and ensure that implications for policy were highlighted at the right levels across government, in addition to overseeing "several new strands of work to inform major areas of policy".[7] This report examines the programme and considers more broadly the Government's approach to horizon scanning.

Our inquiry

3. In July 2013, we issued a call for written evidence addressing the following issues[8]:

a)  How do government departments make use of horizon scanning?

b)  How effective is horizon scanning in government? Do Ministers and senior officials consider horizon scanning outputs appropriately?

c)  What changes could be made to improve existing horizon scanning activity? Will the recommendations made in Jon Day's review of cross-government horizon scanning capability address current shortcomings? What progress has been made implementing these?

d)  How effective is the Government at responding to policy or regulatory challenges presented by new technologies?

We also asked for evidence on three case studies: 3D printing; autonomous road vehicles and intelligent transport infrastructure; and negative emissions technologies. In relation to these case studies, we asked:

e)  What are (or were) the policy challenges presented by this technology? How have these challenges been identified?

f)  How prepared is (or was) the Government to react to challenges presented by this technology? How effective was this reaction?

Insights from these case studies are not explicitly examined in the report but have contributed to our deliberations.

4. During the inquiry, we received 18 written submissions and took oral evidence from 17 witnesses, including:

  • Horizon scanning experts from across industry, academia and the third sector;
  • Representatives of the national science academies and learned societies;
  • Senior civil servants Sir Jeremy Heywood, Cabinet Secretary and Jon Day, Chair of the Horizon Scanning Oversight Group, Cabinet Office;
  • The Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sir Mark Walport; and
  • The Government, represented by the Rt Hon Oliver Letwin MP, Minister for Government Policy, Cabinet Office (hereafter "the Minister").

We would like to thank those who provided written and oral evidence.

5. In this report we consider horizon scanning in its broadest sense, as a suite of techniques used by the Government to help it imagine and prepare for the future. Chapter 2 sets out the case for horizon scanning, briefly considering what it entails, how it is defined and where in government it has typically taken place. The chapter ends with a brief summary of the Day review and its key findings. Chapter 3 then examines the new horizon scanning programme set-up as a result of the Day review and offers several recommendations for its improvement.

1   Science and Technology Committee, Thirteenth Report of Session 2010-12, Science in the Met Office, HC1538 Back

2   Science and Technology Committee, Thirteenth Report of Session 2010-12, Science in the Met Office, HC1538 Back

3   See also Public Administration Select Committee, Second Report of Session 2006-07, Governing the Future, HC123-1 and also Public Administration Select Committee, Twenty Fourth Report of Session 2010-12, Strategic thinking in Government, HC1625 Back

4   Cabinet Office, Review of cross-government horizon scanning, January 2013, paras 3 and 6 Back

5   Cabinet Office, Review of cross-government horizon scanning, January 2013, para 3 Back

6   Cabinet Office/Government Office for Science, "Horizon scanning programme: a new approach for policy making", 12 July 2013 Back

7   Cabinet Office/Government Office for Science, "Horizon scanning programme: a new approach for policy making", 12 July 2013 Back

8   Science and Technology Committee, "Horizon scanning in Government departments", 15 July 2013 Back

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Prepared 4 May 2014