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Participation and foresight: putting people at the heart of the future

The demise of the Commission at the stroke of a Minister’s pen demonstrated the fragility of such bodies. So Welsh Government set out to incorporate the Commission’s function within legislation.

Peter Davies
28 April 2017
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Street art, Bridge St, Cardiff,2016.Wikicommons/ Jeremy Segrott. Some rights reserved.For the last 10 years I have had roles to perform concerned with holding decision makers accountable for future generations. First as vice chair and Commissioner for Wales UK Sustainable Development Commission and subsequently as Sustainable Futures Commissioner for Wales.

These roles reflected the duty to promote sustainable development which was embedded in the Government of Wales Act. This sustainable development duty has been a distinctive part of the devolution journey and has recently been strengthened with the ground-breaking Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act which has established a statutory Future Generations Commissioner with legal powers and duties.

In reflecting on the roles of such Commission functions It is interesting to re-read the final statement from the UK Sustainable Development Commission at its untimely termination by the UK Government in 2010:

The establishment of the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) in 2000 was, in part, a recognition that government is not yet structured to be able to rise above the limitations of short term political and budgetary cycles and narrow departmental remits to make the kinds of long-term decisions and connected responses that these major challenges demand

Finally, it will also be essential to find ways of hard-wiring this approach over successive political cycles. A Sustainable Development Act? A Commissioner for the Long Term? An Office for Future Generations? All have been mooted for the UK by a range of stakeholders and some have been established, or are being planned, in other countries, as a way of taking the future well-being of people and our planet out of short-term parliamentary cycles and partisan politics

The demise of the non-statutory UK Commission in 2010 by the stroke of a Minister’s pen demonstrated the fragility of such bodies and was a key reason why Welsh Government set out to incorporate the Commission’s function within legislation to provide long term protection for the function of the Future Generations Commissioner.

The Future Generations agenda

The nature of the Future Generations Commissioner’s office was heavily influenced by the contribution of partners  – Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development’s – Democratic Case for an Office for Future Generations; the World Futures Council, Stakeholder Forum, the Oxford Martin  “Now for the Future” report and the experience of similar institutions in other countries. The White Paper that led to the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act referred to established best practice principles for such a body:

-       be independent and strong enough to be critical of Government when needed;

-       have responsibility for recommending and monitoring key indicators of progress;

-       be focused on problem solving;

-       bring an interdisciplinary approach; the need to draw on high level cross sector representation;

-       enable joint action from across sectors;

-       ensure strong civil engagement to underpin its role;

-       and be established for the long term with stable resources

The evidence clearly indicated that the Commissioner works best when under a longer appointment term, working to a clear remit and reporting regime. If there is a reappointments process it needs to be very structured and transparent to avoid any sense of political interference in reappointment decisions.

Leverage

It was clear from experience that the Commissioner must avoid ever becoming seen as an instrument of vested interests. The effectiveness of the function is dependent on the capacity to work across boundaries, connect silos, build networks, convene unusual suspects and be an honest broker providing a safe space for dealing with difficult issues. There needs to be a clear structure and rationale for the investigative process initiated by the Commissioner and based on evidence. The Commissioner needs to have the power to request information from public bodies in such investigations. The Commissioner’s independence can be used powerfully by the executive or legislature through request to undertake specific inquiries.

Advocacy on behalf of future generations is central to the Commissioner role – advocacy needs to be based on evidence and the Commissioner’s role is most powerful when it can be proactive in pursing specific inquiries.

There needs to be a clear response mechanism in place so that the Commissioner’s investigations, reports and recommendations receive attention and a response. This means there should be a duty on Ministers to respond. This should also be extended to ensure that the relevant scrutiny committee receives and considers the findings.

However not all the advice was adopted in the formation of the new Commissioner in Wales as there was a strong view that the Commissioner function is most powerful when appointed by and accountable to the legislature as opposed to the executive. The challenge for a Future Generations Commissioner is that they are the voice for generations not yet present. 

The role of a Commissioner is well established in governance structures – we have Older Persons, Children’s and Welsh Language Commissioners in Wales, all of whom now have a distinct constituency or issue to address. The challenge for a Future Generations Commissioner is that they are the voice for generations not yet present.  This points to the importance of having a clear view of the future we want.

National conversation

The creation of the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act was based upon a national conversation on the “Wales we Want” which led to the establishment of long-term national goals and measures of progress incorporated in the Act.  These represent our society’s best representation of what needs to be happening now if future generations are to thrive. The national conversation linked to the UN’s World We Want which informed the Global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act including a direct link between our national goals and the global SDGs.

The requirement on the Future Generations Commissioner to produce a report on behalf of Future Generations every 5 years is a key mechanism for measuring progress, which is deliberately designed to strengthen democratic process as timed a year before the elections for the National Assembly.

The national conversation and associated Future Generations Report provides the engagement by which the goals and measures represent society’s view, while the electoral process delivers the democratic mandate to an incoming Government in reviewing and setting the measures of long-term progress. The goals and measures provide the framework for the remit of the Commissioner, who has the role of ensuring that public bodies are contributing to the achievement of the goals and there is tangible progress against the key measures, with capacity to instigate inquiries where there is clear evidence that we are failing to make effective progress.

Extensive engagement, worldwide

It is now 12 months since the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act became law and the appointment of Sophie Howe as Future Generations Commissioner, with general duty to:

(a) promote the sustainable development principle, in particular to—

(i) act as a guardian of the ability of future generations to meet their needs, and

(ii) encourage public bodies to take greater account of the long-term impact of the things that they do, and

(b) for that purpose to monitor and assess the extent to which well-being objectives set by public bodies are being met.

The Commissioner is focused on ensuring that citizens are empowered  in shaping her priorities with an extensive engagement programme highlighting the key issues as:

  • - Climate change – focusing on reducing emissions and tackling impacts
  • - Economic change – shifting to an economy that is fit for the future
  • - Population change – tackling the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population, the changing composition of our communities, and the importance of early years and adverse childhood experiences
  • - Citizen disengagement – championing public participation and involvement in decision making

Meeting these challenges will require Government and the public sector to rise above the limitations of short term political and budgetary cycles and narrow departmental remits to make the kind of long-term decisions and connected responses that these major challenges demand.

An institution for future generations backed by legislation requiring public bodies to focus on wellbeing of future generations provides a way of taking the future well-being of people and our planet out of short-term decision-making cycles into a long term view of the world we want.

It is encouraging that such institutions have been established, or are being planned, in other countries, while at the global level The World Futures Council has long called for a UN Commissioner for Future Generations. The developments are being connected through the Network of Institutions for Future Generations. All have the core mission of ensuring that citizens are able to hold today’s decision-makers accountable to future generations.

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