Parliamentary Committees and Public Enquiries
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Flawed ‘horizon scanning’ programme an ‘echo chamber’ for Government views

A new “horizon scanning” programme intended to help the Government plan for the future contains “substantial weaknesses”, according to a report by the Science and Technology Select Committee.

MPs particularly criticised the programme for its lack of transparency and for failing to incorporate the views of those outside government, attributing these failings to poor planning and a lack of clear ministerial oversight.

The Government launched its new horizon scanning programme last July, stating that “in a tight economic climate, it is more important than ever to have the best possible understanding of the world around us, and how that world is changing”. It claimed that the new programme would help identify “potential threats, risks, emerging issues and opportunities”, allowing policy-makers to better adapt to changing conditions. However, the Committee has suggested that it is unlikely to deliver these benefits in its current form.

Andrew Miller MP, Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, said:

"Horizon scanning is currently trendy in Whitehall, but, as it stands, the new programme is little more than an echo chamber for Government views. The new bodies that have been created consist entirely of Civil Servants, effectively excluding the vast pool of expertise that exists outside of government.

It is impossible to predict the future. But if we are to attempt to imagine its possibilities we need to incorporate a wide range of perspectives and open our hypotheses up to challenge. The Government claims to recognise this but has failed to provide any mechanism for that wider discussion to take place. The new programme does not even have a dedicated web presence to keep interested parties informed of its activities."

The Committee partially attributed the programme’s failings to a lack of ministerial oversight and also criticised the Government for failing to recognise the potential role to be played in the new programme by the Government Office for Science (GO-Science).

Committee Chair

Andrew Miller MP said:

"We already have an outstanding centre of expertise for cross-departmental horizon scanning: the Foresight Unit, located in the Government Office for Science. Unfortunately, the Government has failed to take full advantage of this existing capacity and the Unit plays only a marginal role in the new programme."

According to the Committee, the relative lack of impact that the Foresight Unit has historically had on policy is largely a result of its non-central location in government. GO-Science is located in the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). In contrast, the new horizon scanning programme is located in the Cabinet Office.

Andrew Miller MP explained:

"The Science and Technology Committee has long advocated a move to a more central location for the Government Office for Science. We consider this essential if evidence-based policy-making is to become truly embedded across government and not simply an after-thought.

In choosing to situate the new horizon scanning programme in the Cabinet Office, the Government has recognised the importance of location and has thereby acknowledged the strength of this argument. We therefore again recommend that GO-Science be relocated from BIS to the Cabinet Office, where it can play a more central role in the new programme and more effectively fulfil its role of ensuring that the best scientific evidence is utilised across government."

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