By Robert Hickson 04/04/2016

Something that I didn’t pick up at the time during the World Economic Forum in January was the suggestion by Marc Benioff, the Chairman and CE of Salesforce, that “Every country needs a Minister of the Future“.

Last year, though, I did write about Sweden’s new Minister for Strategic Development and Nordic Cooperation.

The World Economic Forum’s picked up on that idea, with it being promoted by an entrepreneur in India. However, both Benioff and the WEF appear to frame the scope mostly around technology, which really just seems to make the role one of a Minister of (Science and) Technology, or of Innovation. There are plenty of those around already. South Korea has a Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning, which focuses on promoting a “creative economy”.

As I noted in my last post, there are other bigger trends and drivers at play than just “technology”.

Beyond that, I think the title “Minister of the Future” is stupid. It is the rare politician that effectively and consistently thinks and acts for the long term, especially if that conflicts with party policy, or their constituency. That’s why in part our State Sector Amendment Act (2013) added a system stewardship aspect, with state sector leaders working to, among other things:

  • improve the ability of the system to respond with agility to the priorities of the Government of the day whilst maintaining a long-term focus on the future needs of New Zealanders; and
  • implement a system-wide approach to meeting future leadership and workforce capability needs.

Having a single Ministry with primary responsibility for the future is also a quaint notion, given the broad range of issues that it would need to cover. The WEF article gets it even more muddled by noting that instead of a whole  Ministry, a futures unit could be established to:

  • Plan for threats and opportunities involving new technologies
  • Plan for social changes that will arise due to these technological developments
  • Build India’s innovation ecosystem

That doesn’t sound easy. And without senior Cabinet member support, it would probably end up a small, easily ignored ineffectual fig leaf attempting to cover the future.

While some ministers and ministries in New Zealand can be keen on centralised control, if not  planning, it’s hard to see an effective central planning unit being established within government here in the short term. Older generations are still skittish toward central planning, and the Muldoon years, and current political convention is (often) for less centralisation. And I wouldn’t want one, because there is always the tendency for such units to become too inwardly focused or exclusive over time.

I commented in my post about Sweden’s initiative that another option, particularly for nations with limited experience and capabilities in formal strategic foresight, is to have a unit that works across ministries and agencies to help build capabilities and make connections across different areas of work. As with Sweden, it is more about fostering thinking and cooperation than imposing authority.

Other options are to have a role similar to a Parliamentary Commissioner or a Productivity Commission with a broader mandate. These, being more independent from government, could be more provocative and perhaps innovative in their approach, and be freer to engage outside of the public sector to highlight issues and propose potential solutions.

Good futures work should be challenging, because part of it’s role is to test assumptions and disrupt how decision makers think. That type of thinking won’t be appreciated if suddenly sprung on an unsuspecting public service, or ineffectual (or myopic) Ministers.

Rushing to set up a future’s ministry just because others are, or it seems like a good idea, or shows that you take thinking about the future seriously would just demonstrate how poorly thought has been given to the future.


Header image source: Flickr – Thomas Stirling –

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