Leadership for the long term

By Robert Hickson 13/04/2015

Long term thinking has never appeared to be a strong point in New Zealand’s public or private sectors. We used to have a Commission for the Future, which produced a range of reports (a list of which is available courtesy of the McGuinness Institute), but it fell out of favour during the Muldoon years.

Muldoon & the demise of the Commission for the Future
The Commission for the Future is scrapped, by Malcolm Walker, 1981.NZ Cartoon Archive. Alexander Turnbull Library. A-316-2-010

More recent governments haven’t established anything like it. The Key-led National Government set up a green growth advisory group, which came up with a very pedestrian report that, three years on, is hard to see having had much of an influence. And Pure Advantage, a private sector initiative which also had a focus on opportunities for “green growth”,  hasn’t been active for a year. Some local government bodies do attempt to look over the horizon to help with their long term planning, but different councils don’t tend to collaborate for broader and on-going foresight activities.

Meanwhile, a range of other countries have taken more systematic and embedded approaches to foresight. These are described in a paper by  Dreyer & Stang [Pdf] in the 2013 Yearbook of European Security. One of the biggest challenges of any foresight programme is being able to demonstrate tangible benefits. Another is the political tension of balancing the needs of current and future generations. While routinely done in some cases (education, superannuation, and some infrastructure projects), it is  a hard issue for politicians and government agencies to effectively deal with in many other cases. Jonathan Boston, at Victoria University of Wellington, is exploring this issue in a book that he is currently writing.

None-the-less, as Dreyer & Stang describe, and a recent UK Public Administration Select Committee notes, some governments consider it an important capability for the public service, and politicians, to develop and maintain. Particularly, joined-up foresight across agencies. This was an issue raised by another select committee in the UK last year too.

Agencies in New Zealand produce scenarios, or undertake environmental scans from time to time. But there is usually no coordination between current or with past activities, or any apparent development of the suite of capabilities and connections a good foresight system needs to have.

Chief Executives of government agencies here are being encouraged to “develop a culture of stewardship“. In a rapidly changing world, with greater interdependencies between national economic, environmental and social systems, a better approach to anticipate changes and test assumptions is a necessity not a luxury. Particularly if you a little global trading country stuck down near the bottom of the planet.

What will our options be if the European Union collapses, dairy prices continue falling, foot and mouth disease (and/or fruit flies) establishes here, the Auckland housing bubble bursts, tensions  between the US and China disrupt out strategic alliances, or we discover a wonderful new carbon-neutral resource to potentially develop? Do we understand how decisions we make over the next few years will enable or restrict our responses to some of the future changes that we can already anticipate?