Into the horizon: Horizon scanning is often said to be a key part of the contribution that Scrutiny can make. But how far into the future is far enough?

Posted on 07/09/2022 by Centre for Governance and Scrutiny.

Scrutiny has come a long way since its inception in 2000 where a key feature was safeguarding through transparency. The need for transparency has not diminished, but the focus has changed from the immediate aftermath of a decision. Scrutiny has risen to the challenge of supporting governance in commissioning councils, where contracts can be let for years, and Councillor challenge comes before the contract is drawn up. This requires an attempt to predict the future needs of residents and safeguard the Public Sector.

When Scrutiny practitioners talk about horizon scanning, they usually mean that looking at emerging issues and trends can provide challenge about the sustainability and viability of policies and decisions that the Council needs to make. It is also used to refer to a ‘zoomed out’ view where topics and issues can be seen which may fall outside the scope of delivering services or the immediate pressures. Scrutiny is particularly good at bringing in different perspectives to improve decision making.  For the merit of these approaches, they still tend to be tied to the budgetary term of public service deliverables.  In addition, the data that supports this consideration is usually historic, what have people previously needed? How has something already been done?

This is of course the comfortable preserve of systems thinking – what does the current look like? What has or hasn’t already worked? How can we engineer it better? These are bread-and-butter Scrutiny questions.

But what if the future is radically different?

The data and assumptions that we are using to provide critical friend challenge will not help. It is not enough to consider the future incrementally, a bit better, a bit faster and a bit more tech reliant. The challenges of globalisation and it’s twin reaction, fragmentation; mass global events and the impacts of unimaginable-till-it-happens events like pandemics or climate change or rampant inflation mean that different thinking is required. Consider then whether the next logical step for scrutineers could be in imagining the world of the future and scrutinising decisions that are yet to take place. Or better, Scrutiny practitioners driving system change by prompting different thinking.

I rather like the concept ‘Future gazing’ or ‘future casting’ a description used by tech companies which involves mentally throwing themselves into the environment at some point in the future and considering the elements of life that they should take into account in design.

For Scrutiny to engage with this challenge, the first aspect is recognition that the future might be different than where we are today. It feels like many colleagues are living well in this concept, the evidence being so many Councils grappling with questions about what the future might hold whether that be in climate change and carbon reduction strategies or preparedness for future public health crises.  

Scrutiny has a real role in supporting the stewardship of the route into a desirable future.  Where Councils are setting policy or commissioning services for decades, casting into the future becomes a necessity for Scrutiny. Whether that is considered through the push of need or the pull of innovation.  I also strongly believe that Scrutiny should not be the end point of a process of innovative thinking – giving a quick challenge before a Council agrees a new strategy. But instead, Scrutiny should be part of the push for innovation, to challenge decision makers to throw themselves mentally into the future to imagine solutions to problems that are not quite on the horizon.

This can be as simple as asking how decision makers have taken account of future needs and imagined the highest future possibility.  Or it could be the more involved hosting a future focus task group on what the Council might look like in 10, 20, 30 years – what society might look like and how need and profile may have changed. To be fully aware of the world around us and how we navigate ourselves and our organisations through it we need to have full vision or be fully sighted. This means having the benefit of hindsight, insight and also foresight. Then when understanding what underpins the assumptions of decision makers and challenging them the solutions from today may become more transparent.

By Camilla de Bernhardt Lane

About the Author:

CfGS is a national centre of expertise on governance and scrutiny. We provide consultancy and training to organisations from the public, private and voluntary sectors. We’re a charity with a unique focus on the principles of accountability, transparency and involvement.