“Horizon scanning: helping policy makers in an uncertain world” – Civil Service Quarterly


The future. In sci-fi films, it’s living with cyborgs in a sleek metropolis or a rust-coloured sandscape and violent struggles for dwindling resources. In technology magazines, it’s gadgets and gizmos. For our ancestors, it was a mystery only revealed to seers and fortune-tellers. Throughout human existence, the future has given rise to fear and fascination.

But, as civil servants, do we really need a crystal ball to know what’s ahead? We actually have a whole range of tools in everyday life to plan for upcoming events and manage risk, from Outlook calendars to car insurance. And, if you’ve ever opened a savings account or planted a seed, you know it’s possible to shape your future as well.

What the future holds

Meanwhile, every decision that Government takes in the present helps to bring about a particular future for the country – a better one, we hope. So it’s important that these decisions don’t just consider the present, but also think about the different futures they make possible. In the short term, analysts offer projections and forecasts to help determine the best course to follow. But, beyond a certain point, these statistical approaches are limited. If we want to think about the medium to long term we need to be able to manage uncertainty.

The good news is that this isn’t difficult. There are a whole range of techniques and approaches we can use. In Government, this is called ‘horizon scanning’ and every Whitehall department undertakes it in some form.

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