How can Institutional Mechanisms Safeguard for Tomorrow, Today?

Head of Society Programme Antti Halonen blogs about a recent conference on long-term decision making.
University of Oxford’s Oxford Martin School Programme of Human Rights for Future Generations organised an afternoon seminar under the title of “How can institutional mechanisms safeguard for tomorrow, today? In particular, the seminar addressed how and what kind of long-term goals should be introduced in today’s policy making and what kind of theoretical and practical challenges should be tackled.
According to speakers, there is a plethora of drivers for short-term policy making, accountability for short-cycle time horizons being one of the most concrete. Governments and parliamentarians need to convince voters to re-install them every four or five years, leading to a setup which easily ignores the long-term perspectives. Professor Jörg Tremmel noted that a politician who wants to act beyond the scope of next election, is in fact in a disadvantaged position against her opponent who focuses on very tangible, albeit short-termist solutions. It is not only politicians who act in their short-term self-interests, but voters as well.
Given that some of the most crucial problems our generation should solve, such as climate change and growing inequalities, demand long-term solutions, we must ask what should be done in order to promote long-term policymaking and subsequently promote intergenerational justice.
Professor Simon Caney introduced three possible proposals. Firstly, a mandatory “state of the union” -styled speech with a specific focus on how the country will look like in 50 years time. Secondly, establishing parliamentary mechanisms working to develop tools for long-term decision making, after the inspiration given by Finland’s Committee for the Future, and thirdly, establishing an audit system and performance indicators, which would measure the long term impacts of government policies.
Dr Juliana Bidadanure experimented with an idea of introducing youth quotas in parliaments. Ideally, youth quotas would tackle both substantive and symbolic questions of representation and decision making. Younger people are more disillusioned with representative democracy and political parties than older generations, who are subsequently overrepresented in democratically elected institutions. This leads to a democratic deficit due to misrepresentation of youth at the decision making bodies. Yet, younger people have higher stakes in decision making, since all possible mistakes and their long-term consequences will affect the youngest hardest.
A whole new, and arguably much larger question is the representation of yet unborn generations and how can future generations be represented in today’s decision making, if at all. Decisions are being made by those who are eligible to vote, but not necessarily by those who are affected by the decisions. Devil’s advocate might, however, be tempted to ask whether, given the political reality and level of societal and scientific thinking in the 19th century, we’d like to have been represented by the 19th century parliamentarians ourselves.
What about tangible examples of institutional mechanisms? The Wales We Want is a Welsh national conversation project which will
hear directly from the people of Wales about the most important issues for them in improving their lives and those of their families, communities and businesses. It is an opportunity to look beyond the short term pressures of daily life and focus on our long term legacy.”
Similar calls  have been made in other parts of the UK in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum of independence. Clearly, citizens are interested in making an effort to influence the national conversation about the long-term development of their society. This kind of independent citizen-led initiatives would ideally be free of party-political pressure and can presumably look longer into future than the parliament can, whose work is bound within four- or five-year electoral cycles.
Finland is often used as an international benchmark when discussing institutional mechanisms for future. This is partly due to many organisations whose task is to analyse the potential long-term solutions for the Finnish society and fund potential ideas, but mostly it is thanks to Finland’s parliamentary committee for future, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. Current vice-chair of the Committee, Oras Tynkkynen MP, gave a clear and well-structured account of Committee’s work and challenges. When addressing Committee’s impacts, one interesting fact that emerged was that recently Finland’s prime ministers and other leading cabinet ministers (including former PM Jyrki Katainen and former Finance Minister Jutta Urpilainen) have often been longstanding members of the Committee. On a sidenote, Mr Tynkkynen said that even a future-oriented body such as the Committee lacks certain vision when determining what is considered properly long-term approach and what really are radical, emerging technologies. Too often, according to Mr Tynkkynen, the Committee focuses on topics that are admittedly emerging, but not radical enough. Consequently, the Committee should look into even further in future and take much bigger risks when addressing the potentially emerging issues.   
Another Finnish innovation that has gathered some international recognition is the citizen initiative. Citizen initiatives have been enshrined in the Finnish constitution since March 2012 – if an initiative receives more than 50.000 signatures, then the Parliament is obliged to discuss and vote on the initiative. However, so far every one of the six citizen initiatives that have gathered the necessary number of signatures has failed to make it past parliamentary procedure and emerged as a piece of legislation. Moreover, after the next Finnish general election (due to in spring 2015) those citizen initiatives that are still under discussion on this parliament, will be aborted. In terms of long-term decision making, surely it would be desirable to oblige the next parliament to take those citizen initiatives that have been made so far into consideration, too.
The Finnish Institute itself is one of the many future-oriented Finnish organisations, with our tagline, or mission, of identifying emerging issues in contemporary societies and promoting positive social change. To tackle these questions we have recently steered our thinking towards the concepts of fair knowledge society and future archives:
Our idea of future archives parallel some of the questions regarding participatory historical culture, which aims at both improving historical consciousness and offering citizens a possibility of tackling their own present concerns and thinking over how to make a better future for themselves. This is in parallel with the ever-increasing urge to further empower citizens to take part in public life and open up the public discourse for equal advancement of interests. One of the goals is indeed to provide ways for people to educate themselves in preserving historically and culturally valuable information, and to increase the historical knowledge.”

Consequently, one of the most important services we can make for future generations is to make sure that they have direct access to our thinking and reasoning behind the decisions we have made. What we see of the culture of 18th or 19th centuries is only tip of an iceberg, but the technology has developed so much that we should theoretically possess relevant knowledge and tools to preserve our current societal thinking for future historians significantly better than our ancestors in 18th or 19th centuries could do.

2 thoughts on “How can Institutional Mechanisms Safeguard for Tomorrow, Today?

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