Horizon scanning 'lacks expertise'

Blackpool Citizen: Oliver Letwin heads the Government's horizon scanning programme Oliver Letwin heads the Government's horizon scanning programme

A Government programme aimed at identifying future threats, risks and opportunities for the UK has "substantial weaknesses" and lacks expertise from outside Whitehall, a critical report concluded.

The cross-department horizon scanning programme set up in July last year has yet to give any public update about its work and its meetings had taken place behind closed doors, the Commons Science and Technology Committee said.

The committee warned there was a "worrying lack of clarity" over what the programme would do and said that without external experts the initiative would just be an "echo chamber for government views".

The cross-party group of MPs expressed concern about a switch in ministerial responsibility for the programme between Cabinet Office ministers, from Francis Maude to Oliver Letwin.

The report said: "We do not consider it satisfactory for proper ministerial oversight to commence over six months after a new initiative has been launched.

"Indeed we consider this to indicate a lack of careful thought in the planning of the new programme that is also apparent in several aspects of its design and implementation."

The MPs suggested that representatives from the Royal Society, British Academy and Royal Academy of Engineering should be included as observers on the Horizon Scanning Oversight Group.

The report said: "Horizon scanning should be a way of opening the Government's eyes to a wide array of possible futures; these simply cannot be imagined by c ivil servants alone."

The committee also raised concerns about the way the new Cabinet Office programme would work with the well-regarded Foresight Unit in the Government Office for Science.

The committee's Labour chairman Andrew Miller said: "Horizon scanning is currently trendy in Whitehall, but, as it stands, the new programme is little more than an echo chamber for Government views.

"The new bodies that have been created consist entirely of civil servants, effectively excluding the vast pool of expertise that exists outside of Government.

"It is impossible to predict the future. But if we are to attempt to imagine its possibilities we need to incorporate a wide range of perspectives and open our hypotheses up to challenge.

"The Government claims to recognise this but has failed to provide any mechanism for that wider discussion to take place. The new programme does not even have a dedicated web presence to keep interested parties informed of its activities."

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: " The Horizon Scanning Programme takes a strategic look at the risks and opportunities on the horizon so we can deal better with an uncertain future.

"The programme is now fully up and running with clear ministerial oversight by Oliver Letwin, the Minister for Government Policy."

"Last month we brought together Cabinet Office and Government Office for Science teams to combine their strengths, expertise and networks."

"The views of external experts have always formed an important part of the programme. This year we aim to improve the way we bring together government and external experts.

"We have not been as quick to publish as we would have liked but we are taking time to do the work carefully and we are set to publish a number of papers later this year on gov.uk."

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