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Souvenirs from Oxford, part 2: how can we make long-term policymaking more effective?

Oras Tynkkynen asks what can be done to overcome the short-termism that blights much of modern-day policymaking...



The short-termism that plagues policymaking can be tackled. Various tools and techniques were introduced at a conference hosted at Oxford Martin School by Professor Simon Caney.

Short-term thinking based on ignorance can be tackled by increasing the public’s knowledge of an action’s likely future impact. Possible solutions include greater funding for foresight programmes and making the assessment of the long-term impacts of decisions mandatory.

In addition to conventional performance indicators, each country’s commitment to the long term could be assessed using a long-term impact index. There could be a requirement to produce life-cycle reports on the effects of projects, such as the emissions generated by a coal-fired power plant during its lifetime. In the field of economics, we should think carefully about how we use discounting in evaluating the future impact of an action.

In one form or another, the rights of future generations have been written into the constitutions of many countries, such as Belgium, Norway, Germany, Hungary and Estonia. This could steer decision-making, at least indirectly, towards empowering future generations.

A future-oriented perspective could be strengthened through advisory bodies. One model is provided by the German Advisory Council on Global Change, WBGU.

Some countries have established an ombudsman or commissioner for future generations. The World Future Council is advocating the establishment of a new role, a High Level Representative for Future Generations, among existing UN bodies.

If politicians have a tendency to ignore what lies ahead, should some decision-making be delegated to non-political institutions? In most Western countries, politicians set general financial policy targets, but responsibility for their practical implementation has been handed to independent central banks.

However, Caney has even more solutions to offer. One proposal is a longer election cycle, so that politicians spend less time making sure they are re-elected. Young people could be given greater participation and involvement in decision-making through youth quotas, for example.

Another solution worth considering is appointing people who specifically focus on long-term policies within governments and parliaments. The Finnish Committee for the Future has attracted worldwide attention. Meanwhile, Sweden’s new government has nominated a Minister for Future Issues.

More radical ideas have also been presented. Professor Jörg Tremmel of the University of Tübingen spoke in Oxford about extending the current tripartite separation of powers to a four powers model. Based on the new model, the legislative, executive and judicial branches would be accompanied by a fourth branch, tasked with ensuring the interests of future generations in decision-making.

This can be realised in several ways, for example through an independent ombudsman or commissioner for future generations. The key aspect is the mandate accompanying this role – at the very least, it should include the power to propose legislation.

In sum, a range of techniques exists for strengthening the capacity for long-termism in decision and policymaking. So what should Finland do? I will discuss that in part 3 of this blog (to be published on Monday 8 December).

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