Global summit highlights need for western powers to plan ahead

A gathering of civil service chiefs from around the world has identified a need for western governments to strengthen their horizon-scanning and strategic planning capabilities, with former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell calling for the UK to commission think tanks to develop policy on some of the long-term issues that it’s “difficult” for governments to tackle.

By Civil Service World

05 Dec 2012

At the Global Public Service Leaders’ Summit, run by CSW in Singapore last week, senior officials from Canada and New Zealand learned that Far Eastern governments have established dedicated teams to consider how technological, social, economic and environmental changes will affect the challenges facing public services, and to develop ideas on how governments should respond.

“I’m really impressed by the amount of time and attention that the Singapore public services have been able to devote to thinking through their long-term orientation, their long-term policy; the futures and scenarios work that they’ve done,” commented Janice Charette, Canada’s associate secretary to the cabinet. “We always talk about the importance of making sure that we’re not reacting to the short-term and that we’re long-term focused, but they really have done so.”

Gus O’Donnell – who chaired the first day of the event – told CSW that western governments struggle to consider big questions that have unpopular answers, with even internal discussions constrained by fears that they might become public. There’s a need to “find a way for government to be able to do long-term planning that looks at challenging scenarios for the world and does that honestly – and in a world of Freedom of Information, that’s quite hard,” he said.

“Take the problem with ageing [populations]: all the options look rather hard, and you can understand why governments would be nervous about writing down all these scenarios and options which all involve very difficult and tough choices,” he said, arguing that this kind of topic is “ideal” for the UK government’s initiative to outsource policymaking work.

“There’s a really important role for think tanks,” he said. “I very much think that work needs to be done, and put out a plea to think tanks to get on with it. All sorts of think tanks should be saying: ‘Let’s do the stuff that, for one reason or another, governments really want to do but can’t’.”

Iain Rennie, the state services commissioner of New Zealand, argued that some difficult, long-term decisions are made less politically poisonous when policymaking is opened up to draw in a wider group of citizens and organisations. “Strategy increasingly needs to be done not solely in the public sector but in terms of a conversation with community groups who are going to have a real stake in those issues,” he said. “The more those processes are successful, the easier it is for politicians to move forward on some quite difficult issues.”

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