Government horizon scanning - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Horizon scanning in government

1.  We agree with the Government that horizon scanning is a potentially valuable activity and that, used well, it can enhance both short- and long-term decision-making. However, horizon scanning cannot accurately predict the future and it cannot be used to effectively "future proof" individual policies. (Paragraph 10)

2.  Unlike the Minister, we consider it important that the term 'horizon scanning' is properly defined and applied by government. Inconsistent use of this term has clearly caused confusion in the past. We remind the Government that the Day review cited it as a contributory factor in the Government's historic failure to properly embed horizon scanning into its decision-making. (Paragraph 13)

3.  In this report, we have had little choice but to adopt the Government's usage of the term 'horizon scanning'; however, this is by no means an endorsement. We consider the term 'futures analysis' to be a more accurate description of the suite of activities undertaken by the Government under the banner of 'horizon scanning'. We are also unconvinced by the Government's argument that its branding of horizon scanning has been so successful as to make a correction impractical. We therefore recommend that the Government rename its horizon scanning programme the "futures research programme" and clearly set out, both internally and in public, the techniques that it considers to be within the programme's remit. (Paragraph 14)

4.  It is beyond this inquiry's remit to conduct a full review of horizon scanning across individual government departments. However, given the inconsistencies of practice and performance that have been highlighted in the past we consider it important that a mechanism for regular scrutiny is put in place. We recommend that the Government Office for Science incorporate a regular review of departmental horizon scanning into the next phase of its Science and Engineering Assurance programme. (Paragraph 25)

5.  We consider the siloed nature of the Civil Service to be a fundamental issue which should be explored in a Parliamentary Commission into its future, as recommended by the Public Administration Select Committee. (Paragraph 28)

Areas for improvement

The role of the Government Office for Science (GO-Science)

6.  We regard the work of the Foresight programme to be excellent and consider its relative lack of impact on policy to be a reflection of GO-Science's non-central location in Government rather than the quality of the Foresight programme's outputs. (Paragraph 36)

7.  We consider the Government's position regarding the location of GO-Science to be illogical, particularly in light of its recent decision to place horizon scanning—quite rightly in our view—at the heart of government decision-making, in the Cabinet Office. Horizon scanning is a cross-cutting activity with widespread and potentially significant policy implications, which the Government has committed to embedding across the Civil Service. The same can be said for much of the work of GO-Science. We are therefore at a loss to understand why a recommendation accepted as good practice for one—namely strategic coordination of horizon scanning from the Cabinet Office—has repeatedly been rejected for the other. We again recommend that GO-Science be relocated from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to the Cabinet Office, where it can more easily fulfil its remit of ensuring that the best scientific evidence is utilised across government. (Paragraph 39)

8.  From its new location, we hope that GO-Science would naturally become more fully integrated into the horizon scanning programme. However, we also think that this relationship would benefit from being formally strengthened. We recommend that the Government Chief Scientific Adviser sit permanently on both the Cabinet Secretary's Advisory Group (CSAG) and the Horizon Scanning Oversight Group (GOSH) and that GO-Science be represented in all communities of interest. We also encourage Departmental Chief Scientific Advisers (DCSAs) to engage more closely with the programme and suggest that DCSAs or their deputies offer themselves as representatives for any community of interest in which their department has an interest. (Paragraph 40)

Transparency and communication

9.  We accept that it may sometimes be necessary for the findings of government horizon scanning to remain confidential, particularly when they relate to sensitive issues such as security and defence. However, such cases should be the exception, not the rule. With these exceptions, we propose that the outputs of all government horizon scanning be made transparent. This recommendation applies both to centrally-managed horizon scanning and that conducted at the departmental level, which we consider to be somewhat poorly communicated at present. (Paragraph 43)

10.  We were encouraged by the Minister's plans to "go beyond mere transparency into a positive programme of communication" as part of the new horizon scanning programme. However, several months in, we have not yet seen any evidence of this occurring. We have been disappointed by the lack of information shared about this programme—particularly in relation to its individual work strands—and do not feel that this lays a strong groundwork for the interactive approach which the Minister claims the programme will soon be taking. We recommend that the Government enhance the visibility and transparency of the new horizon scanning programme by promptly setting up a dedicated webpage. The new webpage should:

a)  detail the background and objectives of the programme;

b)  clearly set out the landscape for government horizon scanning, detailing the roles and responsibilities of all major centres of activity;

c)  set-out the terms of reference and current membership of the Cabinet Secretary's Advisory Group (CSAG) and the Horizon Scanning Oversight Group (GOSH);

d)  provide access to the minutes of meetings of both CSAG and GOSH;

e)  detail the objectives, scope and planned activities for each work strand, together with membership of the relevant community of interest;

f)  provide links to all of the programme's outputs and supporting documentation, including a facility for comment and interactive engagement, and

g)  provide information and contact details for organisations and individuals who wish to become involved with the programme.

This webpage should be launched by July 2014 at the latest. (Paragraph 45)

11.  We also encourage all departments to increase the transparency of their own horizon scanning by providing links to key departmental outputs through this central page and by making supporting information available via a public hub such as Transparency should be a key feature of the regular reviews of departmental horizon scanning recommended in paragraph 23. (Paragraph 46)

External engagement

12.  Government horizon scanning must be open to challenge if it is to be effective and this means that it must accommodate a range of external viewpoints. This was made clear in the Day review and we were therefore surprised and disappointed to discover that none of the bodies created in its aftermath currently include any external representation. While we acknowledge the need for government horizon scanning to be government-led, we see little value in a horizon scanning exercise which does not incorporate a broader perspective. (Paragraph 50)

13.  At its best, horizon scanning is underpinned by scientific techniques and can be enhanced by the involvement of scientific experts, whatever the topic. We therefore recommend that representatives of each of the UK national academies—the Royal Society, the British Academy and the Royal Academy of Engineering—be included as observers on the Horizon Scanning Oversight Group (GOSH) and that membership of the communities of interest be immediately opened up to external organisations, including academic groups, learned societies and industry. (Paragraph 54)

14.  We consider it vital that the horizon scanning conducted on behalf of Government informs and is informed by the horizon scanning conducted on behalf of Parliament. We consider the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) to be one possible conduit for this flow of information. We recommend that representatives from POST act as observers on all relevant communities of interest included within the new horizon scanning programme. (Paragraph 57)

15.  We also recommend that the Government establishes a method through which parliamentarians with an interest in horizon scanning—for example, Select Committee Chairs and Members—can engage with the new horizon scanning programme. (Paragraph 58)


16.  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. (Paragraph 62)

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Prepared 4 May 2014