Leadership for the long term: Whitehall's capacity to address future challenges - Public Administration Contents

2  Known trends and drivers

25. A number of long-standing trends are apparent in the UK, some positive and some negative. This chapter describes these developments, which are at least partly understood, and which Government can plan for. A later chapter will consider less predictable risks and trends. But first, we will consider some of the obstacles to carrying out this planning and making use of this understanding: language, data and politics.


26. We have explored a number of terms over the course of this inquiry. Some are well known but inconsistently used, and others can be obscure or cause confusion (see Table 2 and Table 3). Our predecessor Committee has previously concluded that distorted and confusing official language is damaging because it can prevent public understanding of policies.[56]

Table 2: Potentially confusing terms
'Stovepipes'in isolation, bound by departmental jurisdictions
'Deliver'carry out, implement
'Deep dive'in-depth study
'Data packs'data
'Lens'perspective, point of view
'Evolution'gradual change
'Transformation'complete change
'To mainstream'to make part of business as usual

27. The Science and Technology Select Committee concluded in Government horizon scanning that inconsistent use of the term horizon scanning had caused confusion.[57] The Committee considered the term 'futures analysis' a more accurate description of the range of activities undertaken by the Government under the banner of 'horizon scanning'.[58] Sir Jeremy Heywood told us most civil servants understood the expression 'horizon scanning'.[59]

Table 3: Definitions of terms used
Futures analysis assessment and analysis of long-term issues and challenges in a policy area
Horizon scanning
Foresightassessment and analysis of the future of either a policy area or a scientific topic
Black swana black swan event is a rare, surprising event with a large impact
Strategya process of integrating ends, ways and means to meet policy objectives, or

a course of action based on an assessment of the objectives, options, and available resources

Plana plan is a comprehensive proposal detailing who does what and when. A plan may be part of a strategy.
Planningthe act of generating a comprehensive proposal detailing who does what and when
Doctrineguidance on how to think; a body of theory, methodology and practice (not policy)
Policya course of action or principle of action proposed or taken by an organisation. A policy is not the same as a plan.
Defencethe military assets and responses controlled by the Ministry of Defence
Securitya psychological state, where there is confidence that normal life can continue.
Systemic risk the risk of a breakdown of an entire system rather than simply the failure of an individual part
Forecasta prediction of the future, based on data and assumptions about influences
Radical uncertainty is fundamental uncertainty about the future where the level of risk is unpredictable and uncontrollable


Use and access of data

28. In order to look forward and exploit opportunities, it is essential to understand the direction of historic trends. However, evidence from former Financial Times journalist Norma Cohen, a specialist in demography, stated that access and use of these data are poor. In particular, she argued that central government economists are not using population trend data.[60] The Royal Statistical Society was also concerned that "much useful data still remains under-used in Whitehall departments, either because of a lack of awareness about its existence, or anxiety about data protection rules."[61] However, such data offer opportunities. For example, the use of NHS Hospital Episode Statistics could underpin large-scale clinical research, in order to make the UK an attractive destination for investment.[62] We explored the potential of open data in our Report, Statistics and open data.[63]

29. Sir Nicholas Macpherson, argued that some information needs to be kept secret, giving the hypothetical example of secret information on Ireland's intentions in the event of a breakup of the Euro.[64] He said the risk would be that "people could then speculate against Irish bonds and make the event self-fulfilling."[65] Professor Sarah Curtis of the Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience at Durham University confronted this dilemma:

      It's very difficult to share information about the detailed structure of power grids and their potential vulnerability in the face of climate change. That's treated as secure information. However, on the other hand, how can you plan if you can't share this information?[66]

We asked Jon Day how frank officials engaged in horizon scanning can be. He said there was no distinction between horizon scanning and other policy work: "the constraints are the same".[67] We are not convinced by this given the unconventional, and potentially embarrassing possibilities officials engaged in horizon scanning must be free to analyse and assess.


30. As our predecessor Committee concluded in 2007, speculative work may carry political risks and bring few rewards.[68] Major General Jonathan Shaw argued that horizon scanning does not get the priority it deserves because "there is no political credit for solving problems that the public do not know about".[69] Sir Mark Walport wrote that "there is flak from the public, media and opposition politicians when things go wrong, but little or no recognition when adversity is averted."[70] In oral evidence for our previous inquiry Strategic thinking in Government, Geoff Mulgan of Nesta (a charity which promotes innovation) said he had been frustrated in the past at Treasury unwillingness to think through negative scenarios and run scenario exercises for fear that they might leak and be interpreted as meaning the Treasury thought the scenarios were going to happen.[71]

31. A 'Market-wide Exercise' programme began in 2004 to allow bodies including the Treasury and Bank of England and firms to test the resilience of their arrangements.[72] The year before the financial crisis, one of the largest exercises dealt with pandemic flu.[73] The 2008 exercise was postponed; when the exercise resumed in 2009 it considered flooding.[74] More recently cyber-security has become an annual theme.[75] Reviewing the programme in 2012, the organisers recommended more frequent and diverse testing exercises.[76]

32. There is an opportunity for Parliament to host cross-party conversations about policies with an impact beyond the short term.[77] The Minister for Government Policy, the Rt Hon Oliver Letwin MP, told us having a cross-party consensus on the need for greater integration was useful for addressing the future challenge posed by health and social care.[78]

33. The topics covered by horizon scanning are constrained by government policy. In respect of preparation for the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum of September 2014, we had the following exchange with the Cabinet Secretary:

      Cheryl Gillan MP: Would it be safe to assume that officials always look at possible future scenarios in order to protect the Government they are serving?

      Sir Jeremy Heywood: No. In this case, it is very clear that we are not doing any contingency planning. I can say it as many times as you like. We are working for the Government on the Government's policy.

      Chair: You have introduced horizon scanning at the Cabinet Office, but not for this.

      Sir Jeremy Heywood: Not for this, no.[79]

Government horizon scanning is influenced by government policy and ministerial discretion: observers have noted that foresight practices are aligning with the priorities of the Government.[80] The Science and Technology Select Committee reported in May 2014 that they were "extremely concerned" that Government horizon scanning was an echo chamber for government views, and not bringing in outside views.[81]

What is already known

34. There are a number of acknowledged trends and drivers of change which link to major long-term challenges and opportunities for Government (Table 4). These may be primarily social, technological, economic, environmental or political in nature, but have implications across all these domains. The report of the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations remarked that they "can be extremely positive, such as poverty reduction, the emergence of the internet, longer lifespans and the decline of great wars. They can also be negative, as is evidenced by growing inequality and the rising threats of both infectious and non-communicable diseases."[82]

35. The underlying drivers, common to many trends, include:

·  Interconnectedness and interdependency;

·  Centralisation and concentration of systems, populations and assets;

·  Heightened mobility;

·  Longevity; and

·  Faster communication.[83]

Table 4: Example trend and driver
DriverIssue TrendChallenge Opportunity
LongevityHealth and social care Population ageingHow to reform and pay for public services to deal with a larger number of older people Longer life brings the opportunity of a longer productive life, and better quality old age

36. In the next five years, a number of commentators believe the largest challenge facing the Government is fiscal-there is forecast to be one of the largest reductions in public spending ever envisaged in a developed country, GovernUp, a think tank, reported.[84] This challenge is about "how to deliver services to meet the public's rising expectations at a time when, in the absence of significant economic growth, radical consolidation is needed to restore fiscal balance."[85]

37. The Treasury lays claim to responsibility for "growth of the economy".[86] It also accepts that "slow productivity growth" raises "massive issues" for the future, but does not yet seem to appreciate the role of government in promoting new technology and innovation across the public sector and also in the private sector, such as in reducing CO2 emissions in transport, or leading the revolution in electrical energy storage.[87] The government set out how it will exploit all the available knowledge to counter this risk of "secular stagnation" in the economy by seeking out and exploiting opportunities to promote growth through innovation.[88]

38. Education levels will almost certainly continue to rise across the globe and for both genders over the coming thirty years, but educational inequalities will probably persist.[89] The globalisation of higher education will place additional demands on UK universities to ensure that Britain remains a world leader.[90] Former Special Adviser Dominic Cummings has suggested that the only way to address this challenge is for the UK to improve its education and training and to create new institutions to become "the best country for education and science […] the school of the world."[91] He suggested that there is an opportunity for the UK to be "the school of the world" and adds "Who knows what would happen to a political culture if a party embraced education and science as its defining mission".[92] The Royal Statistical Society suggested the Government should commit to a 10-year strategic framework for science and innovation, raising the UK's investment in Research and Development as a proportion of GDP from 1.7% to 2.9%.[93]

39. The House of Lords Select Committee on Public Service and Demographic Change in May 2012 concluded that the Government and society are "woefully underprepared" for the UK population's rapid ageing. [94] However "the changes do not mean a great economic or general fiscal crisis", and "to make a success of these demographic shifts, major changes are needed in our attitudes to ageing" in terms of work, saving and use of housing capital.[95] The Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy (Cipfa) note that the 'triple lock' commitment (that the state pension will rise by the higher of earnings, prices or 2.5%) is a significant financial burden for Government; by 2019 around 16% of all government spending will be on the state pension.[96] Besides longevity, Norma Cohen identifies three other key demographic trends: falling fertility, urbanisation and immigration.[97]

40. In a global context, the Ministry of Defence's Global Strategic Trends - Out to 2045 report, states that physical inactivity, unhealthy diets and increased life expectancy could lead to an obesity 'epidemic' as well as rises in non-communicable diseases such as dementia.[98]

41. The Government has published a UK Five Year Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy, 2013 to 2018.[99] It stated that infections are increasingly developing that cannot be treated. The rapid spread of multi-drug resistant bacteria, it stated, means that it could become impossible to prevent or treat everyday infections or diseases. Coupled to this, the development pipeline for new antibiotics is at an all-time low.[100]

42. The Government has committed to reducing UK greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050, relative to 1990 levels.[101] The Department for Energy and Climate Change stated that, if global emissions are not reduced, average summer temperatures in the south east of England are projected to rise by over 2°C by the 2040s, hotter than the 2003 heatwave which was connected to 2,000 extra deaths in the UK.[102] Extreme weather events in the UK are likely to increase as temperatures rise, causing:

·  heavier rainfall events-with increased risk of flooding;

·  higher sea levels-with larger storm waves putting a strain on the UK's coastal defences; and

·  more and longer-lasting heat waves.[103]

43. The challenges the European Union faces in coming years have the capacity, some believe, to destroy or greatly weaken it.[104] The think tank the Centre for European Reform reported that is has become received wisdom that the chances of the UK remaining in the EU are no better than evens, and that it is not certain that the Euro will remain in its current form, with its current membership.[105] However, in June 2014 the Ministry of Defence's Global Strategic Trends report predicted that Europe is likely to remain a substantial part of the global economy, with the Euro and the single market still likely to exist by 2045, and European Union membership likely to expand.[106]

44. The Public Accounts Committee recently concluded that the Department for Transport was taking a piecemeal approach to its major rail programmes, rather than taking a clear strategic approach by considering what would benefit the system as a whole and prioritising accordingly.[107] The Transport Select Committee has highlighted that the National Policy Statement on National Networks does not consider strategic road and rail projects—such as High Speed Two—together, as part of an integrated transport strategy.[108] A Cabinet subcommittee to examine infrastructure across Government was set up in 2012.[109] The Minister for Government Policy acknowledged that the National Infrastructure Plan, most recently revised in December 2014, still had "a long way yet to go".[110]

45. The use of jargon in advice to ministers can obscure meaning, hide inaction and invite ridicule. Terms must be well understood for Government to be able to conduct coherent analysis and for officials to act accordingly. Jargon must not be used to lend a false legitimacy to otherwise ill-thought through ideas, concepts and policies.

46. Whitehall lacks discipline about how to think about ends, ways and means in part because people use different terms in different contexts. For example, for the Ministry of Defence, strategy is how you achieve policy aims. For many in the rest of Government, the reverse is true: they understand policy to be how you achieve strategy. In our review, strategy includes both: it is about how you choose your long-term objectives, and how you assess the ways and means of achieving them. Both require longer-term thinking.

47. Without a coherent understanding in the Civil Service of the trends and drivers of change, the Government will fail to develop associated opportunities, which depend on developing skills, educational opportunities, and investment in the UK's science and industrial base. This is the most effective way to improve productivity and innovation.

48. The Civil Service usually responds brilliantly to fast onset, short duration crises, with clear responsibility taken by a lead government department. This capability is tried and tested, both through exercises and real events. Market-wide exercises have been conducted to test resilience, but not on a comprehensive basis to address the risk of systemic financial collapse triggered by an unexpected event. Yet there is seldom an emergency that one government department can handle entirely on its own.

56   Public Administration Select Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, Bad Language: The Use and Abuse of Official Language, HC 17 [incorporating HC743i of Session 2008-09], November 2009 Back

57   Science and Technology Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2013-14, Government horizon scanning, HC 703, May 2014 Back

58   As above Back

59   Q 405 Back

60   Norma Cohen (WFC15) Back

61   Royal Statistical Society (WFC18) Back

62   Sami Consulting Ltd (WFC9) Back

63   Public Administration Select Committee, Tenth Report of Session 2013-14, Statistics and open data, HC 564, March 2014 Back

64   Q 218 Back

65   As above Back

66   Science & Technology Facilities Council, Proceedings of the Conference Measuring the Resilience of Cities: The Role of Big Data, 25 October 2013 Back

67   Q 199 Back

68   Public Administration Select Committee, Second Report of Session 2006-07, Governing the future, HC 123i, March 2007 Back

69   Q 247 Back

70   Government Office for Science, Innovation: managing risk, not avoiding it, Annual Report of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, November 2014 Back

71   Public Administration Select Committee, Twenty-Fourth Report of Session 2010-12, Strategic thinking in Government: without National Strategy, can viable Government strategy emerge?, HC 1625, April 2012, Q 13 Back

72   The Tripartite Standing Committee on Financial Stability, Financial Sector Business Continuity Progress Report, October 2014 Back

73   Financial Services Authority, UK Financial Sector Market Wide Exercise 2006 Report, 2006 Back

74   Financial Services Authority, Market-wide Exercise 2009 Report, January 2010  Back

75   Financial Services Authority, Market-wide Exercise 2011 Report, February 2012 Back

76   As above Back

77   School of International Futures (WFC11) Back

78   Q 482 Back

79   Q 101 Back

80   Nesta, Don't stop thinking about tomorrow, May 2013 Back

81   Science and Technology Committee Ninth Report of Session 2013-14, Government horizon scanning, HC 703, May 2014 Back

82   Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations, Now for the Long Term, October 2013 Back

83   See for example John Tesh in Science & Technology Facilities Council, Proceedings of the Conference Measuring the Resilience of Cities: The Role of Big Data, 25 October 2013 Back

84   David Chinn, Jonathan Dimson, Andrew Goodman and Ian Gleeson, GovernUp, World Class Government, February 2015 Back

85   As above Back

86   Q 252 Back

87   Q 214 Back

88   "Secular stagnation" can be defined as "a condition of negligible or no economic growth in a market-based economy". Financial Times lexicon, accessed 24 February 2015 Back

89   Ministry of Defence, Global Strategic Trends, July 2014 Back

90   'Global competition for international students is growing', The Guardian, 4 April 2014 Back

91   'Whitehall has failed. Tear it up and start again', The Times, 2 December 2014 and Dominic Cummings, 'My essay on an 'Odyssean' Education', October 2013 Back

92   Dominic Cummings, Some thoughts on education and political priorities, October 2013 Back

93   Royal Statistical Society (WFC18) Back

94   Select Committee on Public Service and Demographic Change, Ready for Ageing?, Report of Session 2012-13, HL 140, March 2013 Back

95   As above Back

96   Cipfa (WFC16) Back

97   Norma Cohen (WFC15) Back

98   Ministry of Defence, Global Strategic Trends, July 2014 Back

99   Department for Health and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, UK Five Year Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy 2013 to 2018, September 2013 Back

100   As above Back

101   Department of Energy and Climate Change, 2050 Pathways, January 2013 Back

102   Department of Energy and Climate Change, Climate change explained, October 2014 Back

103   As above Back

104   'Three challenges for Europe' in Centre for European Reform, Annual report 2014, February 2015 Back

105   As above Back

106   Ministry of Defence, Global Strategic Trends, July 2014 Back

107   Public Accounts Committee, Twenty-eighth Report of Session 2014-15, Lessons from major rail infrastructure programmes, HC 709, January 2015 Back

108   Transport Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2014-15, Investing in the railway, HC 257, January 2015 Back

109   HM Treasury, National Infrastructure Plan: update 2012, December 2012 Back

110   Q 466 Back

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Prepared 9 March 2015