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Democracy and the Problem of Short-Termism

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by Jaakko Kuosmanen

Successful governance requires taking not only the short-term but also the long-term into consideration. Mitigation of climate change, for example, requires action now, but the benefits from policies adopted today will appear only in future. Similarly, investments in pensions, public infrastructure, or an educational system require long-term planning. Evidence, however, shows that politicians are not always very good at taking long-term into consideration in the design of policies and laws. This constitutes a major problem of governance, which is sometimes described as the ‘problem of short-termism’.

The problem of short-termism cuts across policy fields, and there are various reasons for its emergence. The psychological setup of humans, for example, is such that it can tilt our focus from future towards the present. Various cognitive biases make it harder for us to take long-term into consideration. Humans have, among other things, a tendency to be overly optimistic of the time it takes to complete tasks, and to overestimate their ability to influence outcomes.

In addition to psychological factors, the problem of short-termism can arise due to institutional factors. In democratic systems there is an important institutionalised incentive, which makes governance of the future even more complicated: elections. Short electoral cycles provide a motivation for politicians to engage in projects that will bring benefits in near-term rather than the long-term. Focusing on the needs of those living in the present over the needs of future generations can be an easy choice, as future generations do not cast votes.

This raises foundational questions about democracy: ’Are democratic societies inherently unfit for governing the future?’ Astrophysicist Lord Martin Rees recently declared that ‘only an enlightened despot could push through the measures needed to navigate the 21st century safely’.

Reconciling the tension between democratic governance and governance of the long-term is definitely challenging, and it is not immediately clear to what extent it can be successfully done. But it is also of crucial importance to do our best and attempt to solve the problem of short-termism without abandoning democratic principles. The power to elect and re-elect leaders is an essential part of legitimate governance.

We can be hopeful for two reasons. Firstly, democratic governments around the world are starting to increasingly recognise the problem of short-termism. Secondly, we are still at early stages of capacity building. Many initiatives to support long-term governance in democratic societies are actively being developed.

Both UK and Finland have been at the forefront of this work. Finland has developed various mechanisms that try to steer democratic governance away from short-termist approach. It has introduced a parliamentary committee for future, a report on the future done by each incoming government, and a new foresight unit.

In the UK, Wales recently adopted Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act, which aims to bring long-term goals at the heart of public governance. The Act, which was celebrated around the world, makes Wales a pioneer in long-term governance. At Whitehall there have also been active efforts to strengthen the government’s long-term governance capacities. In recent years we’ve seen, for example, a concerted effort to build effective foresight capacities, which aim to ensure that politicians are prepared for challenges of the future.

These much needed projects undertaken by the UK and Finnish government constitute a promising start. Overall, however, there is no room for complacency. The rise of systemic risks and our increasing capacity to harm the interest of future generations means that we need to act urgently. We need to revamp democracies for the 21st Century.


Jaakko Kuosmanen

Dr Jaakko Kuosmanen is the Co-ordinator of the Oxford Martin Programme on Human Rights for Future Generations and a Research Fellow at the Law Faculty at the University of Oxford. Jaakko received his PhD at the University of Edinburgh, and he has previously worked at the Council of Europe. Jaakko has lectured at various universities on public international law, public policy, and global justice. He is currently teaching at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. Jaakko’s research focuses on the design of long-term oriented governing institutions, and he also provides consultancy for various governments



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More Political Scandals, Please!

by Anne Moilanen

His extraordinary suggestion is that the future PM inserted a private part of his anatomy into the animal’s mouth. (The Daily Mail, 20 September 2015)

When I first read that sentence from one of UK’s tabloids, I thought I had come to the right place.

The future PM in the story was Mr Cameron, the animal was a dead pig and a private part of his anatomy is a perfectly British expression.

UK definitely is a place to be, if you are interested in political scandals. Which I am, both related to my work as a journalist and to my current research at the University of Oxford.

Political scandals have also surprisingly occurred in my professional life. After having worked for two decades in Finnish broadcast and print media, I was invited in 2012 to work as a special adviser to the Minister of Culture. My responsibilities included the Minister’s press relations and culture issues. I had no party membership, but during my post I witnessed some scandals and near-scandals from inside the political system.

For me, the experience was in many ways pivotal. After the Ministry post, I returned to journalism and to the busy newsroom work at the Finnish broadcasting company YLE. But something had changed. I felt that I should further deepen my vastly grown political knowledge.

In Finland, we have the notable Helsingin Sanomat Foundation, which is related to our biggest newspaper. The Foundation allows study grants for prominent Finnish journalists to the top universities in the world – typically for one year, to study and to live abroad.

I applied to the Oxford University’s Reuters Institute – and got lucky.

The book that The Daily Mail pig news was referring to is Call Me Dave, a sensation book by Lord Ashcroft and journalist Isabel Oakeshott. When published in September 2015, the book caused a small political ”Piggate” scandal that went on for a few weeks before it died as quickly as it had started.

Piggate was not a scandal strong enough to dethrone the Prime Minister. Until this day, it has not been proved whether there was any truth in the allegations or not. However, Piggate was great political entertainment, and probably caused a substantial boost to the tabloid’s sales.

The Daily Mail, most faithfully of all media, kept the scandal alive for the time that it lived. The raw materials of the scandal were delicious: a powerful politician, sex, a mysterious secret society, claimed desecration of an animal’s corpse… actually, very much the same kind of stuff that The Daily Mail has published throughout it’s vivid scandal-filled history.

If you look at the history of the British press, it is very much a history of tabloids. Differing from many other European countries, like Italy or France, UK had lots of working class people that were literate in quite an early stage of history. Newspapers were not luxurious artifacts of elite, but soon became every man’s, or woman’s, daily necessity.

That has had an impact on why the press in UK is as it is. When The Daily Mail was established in 1896, it was directly targeted to lower-middle class and women. Scandals – wars, murders and other crimes, sexual behavior in almost any form – were important news topics for The Daily Mailright from the start.

The strategy has been successful. Already in the beginning of the 20th century, The Daily Mail sold one and a half million copies a day. For a few decades, it became the leading newspaper.

In the second half of the 1900’s, The Daily Mail’s circulation revolved around 2,000 000 copies a day.

Last May 2015, The Daily Mail’s average circulation was still over 1,600,000. That made The Daily Mail the second-best selling newspaper after today’s leading tabloid, The Sun.

On top of all, my dear Piggate scandal was claimed to have happened at the University of Oxford – the most mythical university in the world.

University of Oxford, more specifically Green Templeton College, is also the base of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. The Institute, located near the large green University Park meadows, produces research and serves as a center for further education for journalists from all over the world.

Journalists like me. Planning to complete my studies next summer, I am comparing political scandals in UK and in Finland in my research.

In Finland, as you might guess, we do not get as many political scandals as in UK. After the Second World War, Finland has been a strong consensus society. During that era, journalists have also kept quiet about some potential political scandals.

For example, during the President Urho Kekkonen’s prolonged era (1956–1981), the press did not criticize the President.

There were several public secrets related to Kekkonen, for example that he allegedly had several mistresses. Also his dementia, that he started to suffer while he still was in power, was not reported at the time even though journalists knew about it.

The Finnish press started to liberate only during the next President Mauno Koivisto’s and Martti Ahtisaari’s era. President Ahtisaari had to face much crueler publicity than any of his predecessors. In 1994, he appeared with a plaster on his forehead, the grapevine telling that he had been drinking too much and fallen during his trip abroad.

Mr Ahtisaari was asked in a live talk show broadcast: ”Did you wet yourself during your flight?”

In it’s utter disrespectfulness, that moment has left a mark in the national memory. The Finnish media had once and for all broken free from its shackles.

According to a previous research, there were only four political scandals in Finland in the 1970’s. In the 2000’s, the amount was 37. This indicates that there will be even more scandals in the future.

Depending on the country, different things seem to lead to political scandals. In Finland, the most typical reason for a political scandal has been financial misconduct, for example corruption. Only after that becomes inappropriate personal behavior, typically drinking, but not drugs. Historically sex-related scandals have been quite rare in Finland.

So far, I have greatly enjoyed my stay in Oxford. The place feels like home and professionally there are, as well as in London, many opportunities.

Of course, I now only have a one year’s scholarship for studies. What happens after that is still open. And that is wonderfully exciting!

I have got mixed up with political scandals so much that I know, that in life and in politics, anything is possible.

Looking forward to the next Piggate!


Anne Moilanen is a Finnish freelance journalist and communications professional who has specialised in politics, culture and gender issues. For the Academic Year 2015–2016,  Anne is doing a research about political scandals at the University of Oxford, at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
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