The dilemma – whether or not to involve policy-makers
The involvement of policy makers into Foresight exercises seems to pose a kind of dilemma to the foresight practitioner. There are arguments and experiences supporting both directions: Involvement of policy makers as barrier and enabler of policy impact. On the one hand, results are sometimes better accepted by policy makers if they are perceived as stemming from a neutral body, coming from an independent source. Some exercises have, for this reason, tried to keep distance from the policy arena. On the other hand, there is a strong “not invented here” effect. Implementation is only possible if policy makers feel ownership of results and this again implies that they should be actively engaged in the whole process.
Some argue that in a way policy cannot afford to receive “neutral advice”. If a Foresight exercise delivers a very strong message/recommendation there is a danger that policy makers may feel their space of manoeuvre is being limited – they can either reject or adopt the advise but nor really chose from different options. For this reason there is more impact to be expected if policy makers learn themselves as participants.
Each exercise will have to find its own way – the crucial thing is to be aware of the challenge and to make an informed choice.
Involvement of policy-makers in the design
The concept that Foresight exercise could be jointly designed by both the Foresight team and policy client from the very onset was intensively discussed during the Mutual Learning workshops. There was consensus among the participants that high policy impact can be achieved only if there is a mutual understanding of the needs, of the potentialities and limits of the approach and of the specific constraints. This “mutual understanding” can only emerge through a process of “knowing each other”. Therefore, it is crucial that a joint design phase turns out to be more than just a one-off consultation and becomes a real attempt to build trust and mutual understanding. Much more than the one-way communication of the demand from policy-makers to Foresight practitioners, this phase should be conceived in terms of “joint construction” of demand.
Although this way of proceeding might initially sound natural and trivial, the practice shows that this is a major challenge. Indeed, Foresight practitioners regard too often the policy-making system as a black box with a static, pre-existing demand that they expect the policy client to communicate to them in the form of one package of clearly-defined specifications. And on the other hand policy-makers do not want to become involved in issues relating to Foresight methodology. Instead, they expect practitioners to arrange the exercise to fulfil their needs without having a clear picture of what kind of needs Foresight is able to address.
Involvement of policy-makers in the process
The most straightforward suggestion for easing the tension between the “informing” and “facilitating” functions could be to involve policy-makers in the exercise more actively. However, how close an exercise should be to the policymaking process is a hotly debated topic. There are arguments and experiences supporting ideas in both directions: involvement of policy-makers as a barrier and as an enabler of policy impact. The two positions in the debate are summarised below.
If policy-makers are more intimately involved in the Foresight exercise, they become part of the learning process and draw their own conclusion for their decision making needs. In policy-making circles, as in many other places, there is a strong “Not Invented Here” syndrome. If the advice comes out of the blue, it might not be understood and therefore certainly not be embraced and translated into decisions. Policy-makers have to feel that they own the output, and this is only possible if they are actively involved in the whole process from the outset.
On the other hand, Foresight practitioners have argued that at least in some phases of the process, Foresight activities should remain separated and “keep their distance” from the decision-making process in order to be able to find novel alternatives. The participation of policy-makers within the Foresight process might not be innocuous:
- The free, creative and future-oriented thinking can be hindered because of policy-makers influencing the whole exercise to defend their vested interests (However, the same argument is valid, to some extend, for any other participants).
- Other participants may also divert this thinking into a lobbying process by trying to transmit “their” messages directly to the policy-makers.
- Policy-makers are often not prepared to contribute on their own behalf but only as the representative of their institutions, thereby transmitting institutional paradigms or standpoints which may not be relevant for the new challenges.
- They cannot discuss openly their hidden agendas so they might not be able to achieve the support they are in reality looking for.
- Tensions can be created between the short-term needs of policy decisions and the development of long-term visions. The whole exercise might even become locked into internal conflicts or debates.
- The view can be further bolstered that Foresight and other types of policy-support instruments are not balanced and neutral but on the contrary all about justifying decisions that have already been taken, e.g. as an instrument for preparing restructuring measures. This is already a widespread opinion about consultancy in the business sector. Therefore, in some cases policy-makers themselves prefer not to be involved with the Foresight exercise so that its outcomes can later be considered as completely independent from any policy influence.
Furthermore, some specific circumstances would strongly justify keeping policy-makers out of Foresight activities. In countries emerging from the legacy of central planning, it might be desirable to further emphasise the expert-driven, bottom-up, decision-making approach to break away from the highly-centralised, top-down system. Other circumstances may include authoritarian organisations, the lack of adequate methodologies or room for manoeuvre to contain the influence of policy-makers, their ignorance of the issues at stake, or Foresight on issues being object of strong policy controversy.
In any case, the involvement of policy-makers in Foresight activities causes several practical difficulties and has to be carefully designed.
A possible approach to manage the involvement of policy-makers could be to assign them specific roles that suit their perception of their relationship to the process. The question would therefore not be if policy-makers should be involved in Foresight activities but how and when would be more appropriate for them to be involved. This comes back to the concept of a tailored exercise with specific phases, some involving policy-makers and some not, as discussed above.
Policy maker as “customer”
In the second national Foresight exercise of the UK formal policy sponsors from a government body concerned with the issue at stake were appointed who “owned” the Foresight process without being themselves members of the expert groups that were involved in the exercise. This approach produced very good policy ownership. A similar positive experience was made in the UNIDO fishery exercise.
Policy maker as individual
The Foresight exercise in the Wallonie region (Wallonia 2020) took great care to recruit decision makers to participate in the process as individuals and not as representatives of parties, government bodies etc.
Policy maker in special role
When designing the Foresight exercise it should be considered to assign specific roles to policy makers that are better suited to their needs (e.g. clustering of ideas, rapporteur). This worked apparently well in some parts of the German Foresight exercise Futur ( link within the guide).
Policy makers in and out
A good approach to policy participation could be to adapt it throughout the exercise depending on the objectives of each phase. Sometimes policy makers are in and sometimes they are out. However, if such a strategy is adopted in the Foresight design it is crucial that the reasons are well communicated to the policy makers. In the phases they are in it is important that appropriate methodologies are used for capturing their input.
Consider policy culture
Before involving policy makers the political culture needs to be taken into account. The same approach might work in one country and fail in another. Special circumstances may favour keeping policy makers out (authoritarian organisations, ignorance, topic subject of strong policy controversy).