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Policy: taking intergenerational fairness into account

23 July 2020: Policymakers are increasingly seeing the need to incorporate future generations into their decision making. Ellen Shepherd tells us about the framework her team is designing to systematise that process.

Even before COVID-19 started intensifying societal inequalities, a WHO/UNICEF report found that current policies are failing future generations in every country in the world. 

Ellen Shepherd is a researcher and internal audit expert at the School of International Futures, a practice specialising in planning, strategy and policy for future generations. She is part of a team working with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to develop a methodology that would enable Portuguese policymakers to assess the intergenerational fairness of prospective or existing policies. 

While Portuguese governmental policy is the focus of the project, Shepherd tells us they are designing this framework with an eye to how it could be adapted for other countries, different levels of government, international organisations and commercial sectors.

How change happens in practice

“When you design a methodology it’s really important to know who will be implementing it,” says Shepherd. Her team is in constant dialogue with Portuguese institutions, to make them aware of the project and invite them to pilot iterations of the framework. She refers to this as the ‘inside-out approach’: bringing about societal change by starting from within the political system.

However, the team’s findings indicate that in Portugal, ‘outside-in’ is really how change happens. That is, by citizens applying pressure on policymakers. So while getting governments and institutions on board is important, the team believes the biggest question is: ‘How do you generate a national dialogue around intergenerational fairness which will then lead to that pressure?’.

The programme’s methodology includes periodic national planning workshops, in which citizens are asked what their hopes and fears for the future are, and what long-term fairness actually means for the country. This exercise both helps individuals feel invested in the policy-making process, leading to greater public scrutiny and expectation around policy decisions, and provides a valuable learning opportunity for policymakers.

The team will also put a great deal of thought into how the findings from a policy assessment should be disseminated. “Rather than just producing a report that sits on a website, how do you get people more engaged? Could you use a poster with a very simple message like ‘This policy is unfair to future generations’, which you scan with your phone and get more information, or could you produce an interactive online game?”. The team is also exploring more innovative and interactive ways to help bring potential futures to life for citizens.

How do you assess intergenerational fairness?

While the ‘Boomers vs. Millennials’ angle often proves irresistible to the media, there are more representative, not to mention productive, ways to think about intergenerational fairness. Shepherd’s team is approaching it as a complex web of far-reaching and sometimes subtle trade-offs, to be understood as fully as possible in order to make well-informed decisions and manage any negative impacts. 

They have also been careful to avoid what she calls ‘the fallacy of misplaced concreteness’. “We've deliberately not gone too far down a data-focused and numerical route,” Shepherd explains. “As the future is inherently uncertain it's important not to get too stuck on any specific number. It's more around exploring what the impacts could be and exposing trade-offs of benefits and costs, either across different generations, age groups or other subpopulations.”

The team’s framework is structured around five key questions. They are deliberately framed in the negative to promote a ‘snag-hunting’ approach that seeks to identify any signs of potential unfairness:

  1. Does the policy move Portugal away from the vision for the future identified by citizens?
  2. Are any generations, alive now or in the future, disproportionately negatively affected by the policy?
  3. Are any age groups within living generations disproportionately negatively affected by the policy (eg young children or pensioners)?
  4. Does the policy strengthen the vectors of transmission of inequality through generations (eg inheritance tax or access to local facilities)? 
  5. Does the policy restrict future policy options?

What brings Shepherd to this project? She started her career at PwC in internal audit, where she worked on building methodology. “I’m part of this project because of skills that come straight from audit,” she comments. “It’s really about testing something, about having a systematic way to ask ‘What are the impacts of this thing that we’re thinking about doing? And for any negative impacts, how can we manage those?'”

Although the ‘outside-in’ pressure cultivated as part of SOIF’s methodology targets government, it is perhaps only a matter of time before the commercial sector sits up and takes notice. Perhaps then the debate will take a leap forward as the public and private sectors wrestle with the issues in tandem.

If you are interested in helping SOIF to stress-test the methodology in a commercial setting, or would like more information about the project, please contact Ellen Shepherd at ellen@soif.org.uk.

Ellen Shepherd is a researcher and internal audit expert at the School of International Futures (SOIF), a not-for-profit practice specialising in planning, strategy and policy for future generations.