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How to future-proof policymaking

22 September: The European Commission intends to embed strategic foresight into policymaking and to develop ‘resilience dashboards’ for key priorities. Will mainstreaming foresight deliver future-proof policies?

A new report published by the Commission sets out plans to integrate strategic foresight into EU policymaking to ensure short-term initiatives are grounded in a longer-term perspective. The report, the first of what is due to become an annual series, addresses how foresight can strengthen the EU’s resilience across social and economic, geopolitical, green and digital dimensions. 

What is strategic foresight?

As the Commission points out, making use of foresight – exploring, anticipating and shaping the future – is nothing new. What is being proposed now is a more structured and systematic approach to making strategic political choices based on horizon scanning, envisioning alternative futures and enhanced scenario planning. By integrating strategic foresight into the better regulation tools such as impact assessments, the hope is that major policy initiatives will draw on a clearer, agreed understanding of possible future trends, scenarios and challenges – particularly in policy areas subject to rapid structural change. 

A focus on resilience

The central theme of the report is resilience, understood as the EU’s ability to withstand and cope with challenges while undergoing critical transitions in a sustainable, fair and democratic manner. This focus is a direct result of the vulnerabilities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Public administrations across the bloc have strained to provide services, inequalities have worsened, and labour markets are disrupted – with 12 million full-time jobs likely to be lost this year. Critical supply chains have been stressed. The cumulative net revenue losses of EU companies are estimated in the range of 13 to 24% of EU GDP. The ability to tackle the economic shock resulting from the pandemic has varied between countries, reflecting different economic structures and fiscal space. 

Looking to the future, the EU Megatrends Hub lists a further fourteen global megatrends that could significantly impact the EU, ranging from resource scarcity to demographic imbalances. A more systemic understanding of these challenges and their implications is seen as critical when designing new social and fiscal reforms, enabling a more dynamic analysis of synergies and trade-offs between key objectives and across different time horizons. 

Dashboards and partnerships

The Commission hopes to encourage further reflection on broader debates around measuring progress as well as on specific indicators. In particular, the report sets out steps to develop prototype resilience dashboards to assess the vulnerabilities and capacities of the EU and individual countries across socio-economic, geopolitical, green and digital dimensions. The dashboards, to be developed in cooperation with EU countries and other key stakeholders, will need to rely on high-quality and comparable data.

An EU-wide foresight network is due to be launched to develop partnerships drawing on countries’ existing foresight capabilities and bringing in think tanks, academic and civil society while also reaching out to international partners.

Will it work?

Reflecting on the report, Alison Ring, ICAEW Public Sector Director, said: “It is important that governments have a strategy for the future. Embedding foresight into evidence-based policymaking is a key way to help encourage a longer-term horizon.” 

Richard Spencer, ICAEW Technical Thought Leadership, also commented: “Ideally, strategic foresight should go hand in hand with the application of modern design-thinking to encourage a more iterative approach, based on learning through continual testing and the close involvement of users and stakeholders at all key stages of the policy-making cycle.” 

The 2020 Strategic Foresight Report, ‘Charting the course towards a more resilient Europe’ is available here.