Professor Jonathan Boston reflects on governing for the future

Jonathan Boston, Professor of Public Policy at the School of Government, has been pondering questions about how we can govern well for the future during his sabbatical leave.

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Professor Jonathan Boston reflects on long-term governance perspectives

Among the weighty questions that Jonathan Boston, Professor of Public Policy at the School of Government, has been pondering during his sabbatical leave is "How can we encourage democratic governments to take a long-term perspective and give adequate attention to the interests of future generations? ".

"I 've been looking at what I call 'the long-term democratic governance problem '," says Professor Boston.

"By this I mean the tendency of democratically-elected governments to think and act for the short term rather than the long term.

"Such short-termism – it's also called 'political myopia' or the 'presentist bias' – raises all kinds of ethical questions about inter-generational justice. And it can pose a real threat, for example in relation to a 'wicked' problem like climate change which occurs over decades, if not centuries.

"If governments don't start dealing with this problem now, then we may be dooming the world to irreversible biophysical impacts, including significant species loss."

Six-month research sabbatical

To research the issues surrounding the question of governing for the future, Professor Boston spent his six-month sabbatical in Europe and the United States.

"In Europe I talked to people in the United Kingdom and Finland; in Finland in particular they are quite advanced in terms of 'future thinking'.

"In the United States I was able to spend time in Washington DC, thanks to a Fulbright Fellowship. Washington is full of think tanks, some of which are deeply concerned with the issues of governing for the future, so it was a good place to base myself."

Short-term thinking by governments prevents them dealing effectively with a wide range of pressing problems, he says.

"It's not just climate change – governments also need to deal with issues like the long-term consequences of demographic change produced by an ageing population and with the implications of increasing population diversity.

"Then there are long-term infrastructure questions, not to mention issues such as early intervention in social problems, where spending money now – for example, on rehabilitative programmes – may save us from spending much more money later, when the problem has got a lot worse."

"Intervention logics" for the problem of short-term thinking

Professor Boston has developed six "intervention logics", which can be applied to the problem of short-term thinking by governments.

"One would be to insulate decision-making from the electoral process; that is, put it into the hands of people other than politicians, rather in the way that monetary policy is handled by central banks.

"Another solution might be to incentivise the political system so that it gives more weight to long-term considerations, for example by creating better reporting frameworks and accountability mechanisms.

"A third solution would involve building our capacity to think about the future. We could do this by setting up permanent think tanks or research centres dedicated to future thinking, and they've already done this in Finland, with some success.

"We had a Planning Council and a Commission for the Future here in New Zealand in the past but neither lasted very long, unfortunately."

He says there are obstacles in the way of democratic governments succeeding in governing for the future, but doesn't want to exaggerate the problem.

"Some governments do reasonably well in this area, so there is no reason why other governments can't do better. And they need to – our future depends on it!"

Forthcoming publication

Professor Boston will be publishing a book based on his research next year, and a copy of his seminar paper is available at Governing for the Future: How to bring the long-term into short-term political focus.