By Joshua.Chambers

25 Apr 2013

Government must plan ahead for long-term social, economic and environmental change, so it employs ‘horizon scanners’ to predict likely scenarios. Joshua Chambers looks at what the future holds for this unusual profession.

What will happen to the UK economy if the eurozone collapses? How will climate change affect our daily lives? Where might future wars be fought, and what are the weapons that might be deployed? Worries about the future affect us all, but they are particularly large and daunting for people at the heart of government.

To help anticipate potential threats and opportunities, the civil service employs a mysterious group of people called ‘horizon scanners’: they model potential futures, providing the basis for strategic and long-term planning. Recent projects include examinations of the risk of natural disasters in the UK; the potential of mind-controlled weaponry; and the likelihood of Korean reunification.

Horizon scanning has long been a part of the furniture of government, particularly – though not exclusively – in the intelligence agencies; but now cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood wants to renovate Whitehall’s horizon scanning capabilities. Last year’s Civil Service Reform Plan promised action, and Heywood consequently commissioned a review by Jon Day, the chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee.

Day completed his review late last year, and it was declassified in January. As the government responds to his recommendations, Civil Service World has spoken to those working in the field, other experts, and specialists from other countries to understand the value of horizon scanning – and how the UK can improve at it.

You do what?!
One immediate problem must have struck Day when he began his review: what exactly was he reviewing? His report explains that horizon scanning is not soothsaying – he notes that “it does not predict the future” – but as he says, “there is no set, cross-government, agreed definition of horizon scanning. This is confusing, for both the customer and the practitioner.”

One practitioner is Professor Sandy Thomas, who runs horizon scanning for the Government Office for Science. She agrees with Day that “there is a lot of quite loose terminology”. In its broadest sense, horizon scanning includes any work done to assess the likely future of a policy area, while in the narrower definition “it’s particularly about looking for the weaker signals; because quite often there are developments in train that are not very obvious today, but may become obvious years ahead in the future.”

The government also didn’t define the horizon, as opposed to the foreground or the middle-distance. The environment department has a specialist unit that looks no more than nine months ahead, while the Ministry of Defence’s Development, Concepts and Doctrines Centre publishes a report on the global strategic trends of the next 30 years.

Day therefore formalised government’s definition of horizon scanning as “a systematic examination of information to identify potential threats, risks, emerging issues and opportunities, beyond the Parliamentary term”. This definition has already been adopted by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), says Edward Ferguson, the department’s head of defence strategy and priorities.

How to build a time machine
Horizon scanning uses three key techniques, explains Thomas, whose ‘Foresight’ unit provides advice and training to practitioners across government. First, “you construct plausible alternative futures,” she says; experts visualise the various possible outcomes of decisions that are likely be taken, and assess the trends currently affecting policy areas. For example, one plausible alternative future the Foresight team recently considered had Britain outside of the European Union. “The risk is that, if we don’t [build alternative futures], we tend to think that the longer term will simply be a different version of what we have today,” she says. “The important thing is to discourage linear thinking”.

The second technique is called “road mapping,” Thomas says, and involves looking at “the kinds of new technologies that are on the horizon, so that we can begin to think about how they might develop, and when they might begin to have an application.” For example, the Foresight team recently considered the ethical implications of artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, the latest report from the Defence, Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) flagged up scientific advances that could lead to ultra-thin invisibility cloaks, holo-conferencing, and machines that can indicate someone’s intention before they have even become consciously aware of it. Road mapping has also been used to flag up high-potential medicines, especially those from smaller companies that lack large marketing budgets, says Dr Claire Packer, head of horizon scanning for the National Institute for Health Research.

The third horizon scanning technique uses mathematical modelling to set out possible futures, using data trends. This technique has, for example, been used to understand the potential effects of climate change.

A history of the future
In various guises, Whitehall has been horizon scanning for hundreds of years. According to historian Lord Hennessy, the first horizon scanner was Captain Fitzroy, who persuaded the government to set up the Met Office in 1854. The first organisation to horizon scan in the modern form was the Committee of Imperial Defence, he adds, which started its analysis work in 1902. Next month Hennessy will publish an updated version of his latest book, Distilling the Frenzy, which details the developments of the trade right up to the present day.

Hennessy says that the UK’s record on horizon scanning is patchy: important developments that were missed include nuclear energy, the personal computer, space travel and the credit crunch. Other major blind spots identified by CSW include the potential of the internet, and the collapse of the Soviet Union – although Hennessy says that one person in the Foreign Office did spot this coming.

Nevertheless, Hennessy says that history has shown horizon scanning to be a valuable pursuit. Beveridge used horizon scanning to underpin his blueprint for the welfare state. And in 1959, Macmillan commissioned a Future Policy Study to plan where Britain would be in 1970. It was gloomily accurate in almost every area, including industrial decline and isolation outside the European Union: among the biggest events, it only failed to predict the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Modern-day horizon scanning has also proved useful; Thomas says that the UK’s proactive public health policy is supported by horizon scanning work on the likely effects of rising obesity rates. And Ferguson says that horizon scanning was vital when the MoD considered whether to purchase an aircraft carrier that will be in service until 2070. As Day writes in his review: “By using its findings to inform policy, we can improve operational preparedness and resilience, develop more robust strategies, and decrease our risk exposure.”

Cautious forecasting
Horizon scanning shouldn’t be relied on, though. “One of the key points to make is that any sort of horizon scanning needs to be conducted with due humility,” Ferguson says. “Predictions are rarely accurate.”

Departments also have differing abilities. Speaking at the Public Administration Select Committee last year, cabinet secretary Heywood said that “the MoD and the security side of Whitehall do this better, in some ways, than the domestic, economic side of the government”.

Day writes that more should be done to share horizon scanning tips and products across government, noting that “there are strong networks of analysts at the working level, producing informative projects internally, but there is weak integration between departments”. There are some existing networks to share information between departments, he adds, but they can be “quite ad hoc in nature in some areas”. He has therefore called on Thomas’s horizon scanning centre to maintain and develop these networks.

It should be said that, until 2010, there was a network that brought together horizon scanners from across government, along with people from the private, academic and third sectors. Thomas says this has been replaced by a network just for departmental heads of horizon scanning, who meet on a quarterly basis; the Government Office for Science supplements this work by building up relationships with individual departments to provide training and conduct joint projects. There’s also a “follow up team”, she says, which helps departments get maximum value from the work that they’ve conducted.

Far-sighted oversight
Another weakness Day found was that “while some horizon scanning networks coordinate and share best practice, a lack of truly cross-governmental oversight and coordination has prevented cross-cutting horizon scanning work from reaching relevant audiences. This has led to duplication of effort, with narrow, stove piped working which limits the relevance and impact of the output.”

Day’s strong words follow a number of prominent calls for greater centralisation over the past decade. Indeed, a central, Cabinet Office-based Horizon Scanning Unit – later renamed the Strategic Horizons Unit (SHU) – was established in 2008 to examine national security issues. However, in 2010, this transferred into the National Security Secretariat and was promptly axed. As Day writes: “Due to budgetary changes, only one individual remained in the Cabinet Office from the original SHU, and this person was not employed in a horizon scanning capacity.”

Day therefore calls for a central horizon scanning structure to be re-established in the Cabinet Office, and with a broader remit than national security. This group should coordinate all of government’s existing horizon scanning units in their examinations of cross-cutting issues, he argues (see box below).

This structure, Day says, should comprise two groups supported by a small secretariat. Now up and running, the first group is the Cabinet Secretary Advisory Group (CSAG), which is chaired by Heywood and meets on a quarterly basis. This discusses key policy implications, determines proposals for action, and can escalate important information up to the cabinet or the National Security Council. The members of this group are: Jon Day; Gareth Davies – wearing his Cabinet Office chief economist hat; Sir Mark Walport, the government’s new chief scientific adviser; Bernard Gray, the procurement chief of the MoD; Tom Scholar, second permanent secretary of the Treasury; and the permanent secretaries of the Foreign Office and the departments for business, international development, and health.

The second group is the Horizon Scanning Oversight Group (dubbed the GOSH), which is chaired by Day and reports to the CSAG. It coordinates the work of departmental leads, which have been appointed across government, and meets on a monthly basis.

The GOSH is “bringing together the policymakers to determine what is most useful to them. It’s really about providing direction and an effective steer to the horizon scanners, [giving them] priorities to help them organise and cohere,” explains the MoD’s Ferguson. “From my perspective, this is really helpful and can only help make horizon scanning more coherent, more effective, and draw on a wider range of expertise – rather than just being done in departmental silos.” Previously, the MoD might only have seen specific work on defence and security, he adds, but now it can access broader projects; for example, studies on the attitudes of young people carried out for social policymakers might help with military recruitment.

Commission, if you choose to accept it
Day’s report also criticises the commissioning of horizon scanning work. He writes that it is “often self-tasked or commissioned with a limited understanding of what [policies] it might be used to inform. This has led to more generic pieces of work which do not translate well if used to answer specific questions”.

The CSAG and the GOSH will, therefore, be commissioning pieces of work in ways that ensure they’re valuable to a broad audience. The CSAG has already commissioned the Foresight team to look at the implications of demographic change, reporting back in September. “Over the coming decades, demographic pressures such as an ageing society and an increasing population will mean that the government has to make robust decisions on a range of issues such as pensions, healthcare and education provision,” Thomas says. Meanwhile, the GOSH has commissioned the DSTL to report on the emerging science and technologies that have implications for defence and security.

Outside organisations are also expected to play their part, in keeping with the government’s ‘open policy making’ agenda. Departmental leads have been charged with liaising with universities and other outside centres of excellence. Some departments have already taken this a step further: the environment department’s longer-term horizon scanning has been entirely outsourced under a three-year contract with the Centre for Environmental Risks and Futures at Cranfield University. It’s “a shared contract, led by Defra but owned by a variety of groups including the Scottish Government, the Food Standards Agency, the Marine Management Organisation and the Forestry Commission,” says Elayne Phillips, the head of horizon scanning and planning in Defra’s communications group.

However, Day has warned against outsourcing all government capability, saying that outsourced horizon scanning “may be too far removed from departmental reality to be useful, as it then requires significant further work”.

New futures culture
Even if forecasts are accurate, of course, there’s no guarantee that ministers will listen. Day writes that “ministers and senior officials are often accused of being too focused on tactical issues and it can be a challenge to find time to engage them on issues which might not impact for anything up to 50 years, if at all.”

To ensure that horizon scanning is better “embedded into the civil service mindset as a useful tool”, Day has said that “the post of cabinet secretary should formally own horizon scanning and act as a champion for it.” Hennessy supports this, noting that “it’s all part of speaking truth unto power. There’s no point in having good and clever people in the civil service if you only serve stuff that reinforces existing prejudices and hopes.”

The presentation of horizon scanning work will also be improved to encourage its wider use. Day writes that “horizon scanning products are often lengthy and poorly presented, making them harder to digest and easier to ignore. It is also rare for them to include policy implications or an analysis of how the information presented could be used to inform decision making.” He advises that scanners use “commercial, non-technical language”. Meanwhile Hennessy, who won the Orwell Prize for political writing, advises that “you’ve got to write it in a way that catches the eye, but isn’t distorting. [Ministers’] workload is such that, if you’re lucky, you’ll get them to read a side of A4, so the executive summary has got to be very well crafted, with the backup to give them more if they want it.”

Ministers also want horizon scanners to make judgements on the biggest risks and opportunities, resisting the temptation to name every possible future. Hennessy’s book quotes Thatcher speaking about the Falklands War to the Franks Committee in 1982, where she argued that officials shouldn’t be “trying to cover themselves the whole time with a little paragraph at the bottom saying: ‘Of course we must warn you that an invasion… could blow up every time’.”

Yet putting these practical issues to one side, the future of horizon scanning in government looks positive. It’s very difficult to make accurate predictions, but the trend for increasing prominence, greater sharing, centralised oversight, and the cabinet secretary acting as champion are all positive indicators.

That only leaves one question: who exactly are these horizon scanners, and why have they been chosen for this role? That’s best left to a practitioner: Helena Bacon, the horizon scanning team leader at DSTL. “Horizon scanners are supposed to be a little more maverick than other people, prepared to say something which might at first appear to be rather wacky,” she says. “If people aren’t muttering about us and we’re not thinking out of the ordinary, we’re not doing our job.”

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