Government horizon scanning - Science and Technology Committee Contents

4  Conclusion

59. In recent years, the landscape for cross-government horizon scanning has been in flux. Centralised hubs of horizon scanning have come into—and, in the case of the short-lived Strategic Horizons Unit, very rapidly out of—existence, to be replaced with departmental functions with little cross-government influence. The Government Office for Science (GO-Science) has attempted to fill this vacuum by itself conducting high quality cross-cutting horizon scanning through its "world lead[ing]"[178] Foresight programme and by attempting to improve and coordinate departmental capability through its specialist Horizon Scanning Centre. However, GO-Science's non-central location has limited its influence and horizon scanning remains an activity frequently performed but rarely used across much of government. The result, according to the Public Administration Select Committee, is that "policy decisions are made for short-term reasons, little reflecting the longer-term interests of the nation".[179]

60. The Government hopes that its new horizon scanning programme will be a panacea for these past ills. It states that the programme constitutes a "new approach" which aims to "embed better horizon scanning capabilities in the policy-making process" across the UK Civil Service.[180] We agree that the new programme provides an opportunity for a clean slate. However, we are concerned that, so far, the programme has more closely resembled a quick fix than a deeply considered change of approach. In particular, there has been a worrying lack of clarity over exactly what horizon scanning is and what the new programme will attempt to do. While the Minister shrugged off his inability to define horizon scanning as a reluctance to engage in a "theological dispute"[181], we are unconvinced by this argument and consider his response to be evidence that the remit of the programme has not been properly set out. At the very least, it has not been properly communicated: since the programme was first launched nearly a year ago no further information about its activities has been made public and its meetings have occurred behind closed doors, without published minutes. The Minister has also acknowledged that he was not "confident" in how the new programme would "make maximum use of" the excellent work currently conducted by the Government Office for Science (GO-Science).[182] In this report, we have suggested one step—the re-location of GO-Science to the Cabinet Office—which would help integrate these two loci for strategic horizon scanning; nevertheless, we are disappointed that this fundamental question was not resolved more successfully by the Day review and was not taken into consideration prior to the launch of the new programme.

61. We at least partly attribute the failings of the new programme to a lack of clear ministerial oversight. When we first invited the Cabinet Office to provide us with a Minister from whom to take oral evidence, we were told that it would be the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude MP—one of three individuals who we were told would be providing ministerial oversight for the new horizon scanning programme.[183] Less than a week before we were due to hear from Mr Maude, we were told that he was no longer available. According to Mr Maude, during the lengthy rescheduling that ensued,[184] it became "apparent that it would make greater sense for another Cabinet Office minister to appear" in his place. He continued: "the Programme is at a very early stage of development, and as a result of subsequent consideration within Cabinet Office, Oliver Letwin will now provide ministerial oversight of this work".[185] Mr Letwin himself later provided further explanation:

    Up until very recently, Francis Maude was keeping an eye on [the programme] because it had been set up by the Cabinet Secretary's process and he is the Minister for the Cabinet Office. As it has evolved and it became clear that what it is actually going to be focusing on is a series of things that will probably have policy rather than administrative effects, in the invisible dividing line between Francis and myself we concluded that it made more sense for it to be on my side of the House, as I deal with policy rather than administration and he deals with administration rather than policy. Therefore, I have been drafted in, and from now on I will be taking a very active interest in it.[186]

62. We do not consider it satisfactory for proper Ministerial oversight to commence over six months after a new initiative has been launched. Indeed, we consider this to indicate a lack of careful thought in the planning of the new programme that is also apparent in several aspects of its design and implementation. We recommend that the Government take a more considered approach to such initiatives in the future and encourage it to seriously consider the recommendations made in this report to address the shortcomings of its new horizon scanning programme.

178   Public Administration Select Committee, Second Report of Session 2006-07, Governing the Future, HC123-1, para 27 Back

179   Public Administration Select Committee, Twenty Fourth Report of Session 2010-12, Strategic thinking in Government, HC1625, p.3 Back

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

181   Q235 Back

182   Q242 Back

183   GHS015 [HM Government] para 33 Back

184   The oral evidence session in question was due to take place on 09 December 2013; the rescheduled session did not occur until six weeks later on 22 January 2014. Back

185   General correspondence of the Science and Technology Committee, letter from Francis Maude MP to Andrew Miller MP, 7 January 2014 in respect of Government horizon scanning Back

186   Q221 Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2014
Prepared 4 May 2014