Deep Uncertainty and the Long-Term: Time, the policy challenge and enablers for policy persistence

by Judy Lawrence and Robert Lempert

At the conclusion of the DMDU workshop at Deltares, The Netherlands in 2015, we identified political scientists as an additional group that could inform the discussions at the next annual workshop. Accordingly, we designed a problem session at the annual workshop at the World Bank in 2016, entitled: Deep Uncertainty and the Long-Term: Time, the policy challenge and enablers for policy persistence. Whether or not decision makers consider the implications of their decisions for future generations under changing conditions depends on a range of institutional, political, behavioural and ethical factors. One of these is the extent to which policy decisions are influenced by short-termism or presentist bias. This in turn, depends on the political context within which decisions are made.

Tools developed for decision making under conditions of uncertainty and change, need to be ‘fit’ for the changing environment and for the political context, to enable policies to persist over time and adapt to changing conditions. Or the political context could be changed using commitment devices. Thus, for successful implementation of policies that can persist over the long term or be adjusted as the world changes, we need to understand the drivers that motivate the actors.

Professor Jonathan Boston Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand elaborated how presentist bias varies across jurisdictions, policy domains and is caused by the impact of uncertainty, the nature of political institutions, and weak international institutions, suggesting solutions based on  6 interventions logics; changing the motives of decision-making, enhancing the capacity to make farsighted decision, formal constrains within which policy decision are made, insulating decision-makers from short-term political pressures; changing the political incentives; and establishing new coordinating mechanisms. 5 strategies could be;

  • embedding the future more deeply in democratic institutions through procedural and substantive commitment devices
  • enhancing political systems capacity for foresight
  • strengthening institutional voices for the future through independent agencies and the public sector stewardship role
  • embedding the future in analytical frameworks and tools
  • creating a more conducive political environment for anticipatory governance.

Implication for decision making about sea-level rise included minimising political resistance and enabling proactive precautionary measures with new mechanisms for public participation and deliberative governance at multiple levels, and adaptation-focused advisory institutions.

Professor Detlef Sprinz, Potsdam University, Germany discussed credible commitment to future generations for public policy issue that last at least one generation, exhibit deep uncertainty and engender public goods aspects. Based on Kydland and Prescott (1977) – The inconsistency of optimal plans where future optimal plans can be different from present optimal plans, several criteria where identified that affect credible commitment: long term promise, at least an expectation that the promise could be reneged, sovereign wealth funds as an analogy to loosing substantial resources. Here the Alaska and Norway funds were reviewed for their success by asking whether these funds will be tapped in time of budgetary crisis. This was not in sight in Norway and would be political suicide in Alaska. However, constitutional provisions are not safe from change in the face of the form of obligation mattering less than the urgency of the need for more immediate funding (myopia).

Professor Leon Fuerth, George Washington University, USA discussed the role of anticipatory governance and the motivators of policy persistence. Anticipatory governance has the following characteristics; System has to look at the most available possible futures (better mechanism for execution, especially interdisciplinary issues, but true fusion of knowledge is really hard to do); Moved from forward engagement to anticipatory governance (feedback as a principle of the organization – systematically measure what is happening to what is expected, develop a means of correction rather than what happens now where the feedback mechanisms is the crashing and burning of policy). The means to executing anticipatory governance are lacking but the means to imagine the future are much better but the means to carry them out are not advancing. Greater understanding of the political and deep psychological roots of society to work in the present is needed, because the need to execute anticipatory governance is accelerating.

Posters were presented on anticipating change and iterative decision making; socio-economic scenarios; analogue design features for reducing presentist bias; adaptive pathways with reliable signposts to signal when change is needed using adaptive planning. The participants then broke out to discuss the following issues: Strategies for mitigation of presentist bias and credible commitment consistent with democratic values; Institutional and policy design mechanisms to address presentist bias and credible commitment; How can anticipatory governance be implemented in democracies?

A panel of the speakers also joined by Nancy Donavon (US Government Accountability Office) discussed how future focused institutions could be fostered using foresight approaches and better metrics. Collaborative policy making where shared values are built, emerged as an approach to reduce presentist bias by building credible commitment and trust across different interests; noting that trust is in short supply across democracies. Incentives for long-term policy making were demonstrated in the persistence of sovereign funds over long timeframes. Looking at the working parts of a system was identified as necessary e.g. the press is a part of the system that is working poorly and the role of the internet is destroying the ability to have discourse. We do not realize the consequences of the future.  It’s not that we discount the future. Presentism includes both of these things and is only one of the problems in decision-making. There is a need to make it more likely that large groups of people can think about long-term consequences for actions and to communicate unintended consequences (primary, secondary, tertiary…). Can you depolarize the system? For example; insulating devices that shift future thinking using foresight methodologies, to non-democratic but independent bodies; there are areas of public policies where it is reasonable to shield the decision-making process but the fundamental policy decisions need to be made under democratic system (or it becomes a non-democratic system). But where do the decision rights lie? Can we be confident that the experts are making the right decisions? Laws at the end of the depression were based on hindsight but were intended to be guidance. There has been a systematic dismantling of the laws that were the means of managing the system and replaced with a self-regulation paradigm.

Examples of policies which had enabled deep uncertainty to be addressed or where policies had persisted over time included the UK Flood Foresight reporting; the Norway Sovereign Fund; the US National Parks Service; the US Constitution (adjust by lawful methods); the Marshall Plan; the NZ Superannuation Fund.

The session thus broadened the discussion to issues that affect the use of tools for long-term policy making where there is deep uncertainty and the implementation of such policies.

2 thoughts on “Deep Uncertainty and the Long-Term: Time, the policy challenge and enablers for policy persistence

  1. Jim Maltby Reply

    The way the ‘presentist bias’ is described leads me to interpret it as an artefact of the decision makers thinking: I don’t know if that is the intention. However, ‘presentist bias’ is not a term I have come across psychological literatures. In addition to this, the descriptions of biases tends to stem from normative studies in unnatural settings with University Students or mice, not naturalistic decision-making settings.

    Having said that, I do agree that there is a tendency to make short-term decisions, in Western (or W.E.I.R.D regions But, I think this much more an artefact of organisations structures and incentives than the humans being poor are decision-making. If you look back in history, humans were good at longterm thinking; aborigines only harvested sustainable yields from the environment – otherwise they wouldn’t survive.

    I believe that the way W.E.I.R.D institutions incentivise their employees is the key problem here. Klein (2015) among others shows how modern organisations inhibit our ability to be creative an move beyond incremental changes. For example, where do you get promoted for demonstrating that you delivered something amazing that won’t be realised for another 10 years; but in most organisations if you demonstrate a minor change or impact recently you get promoted.

    I, therefore, don’t think better analysis is the answer. Better collaboration and co-created policies, I feel, are just papering over the cracks (short-term fixes). What we need is for organisations to change. So I propose that we need some organisational theorists (or the appropriately named field) and behavioral scientists to join the DMDU Society to help navigate through these problems.

    • Judy Lawrence Reply

      The presentist bias relates to the decision makers not necessarily those advising on decisions in organisations. The term is used in political science. It is the politically elected who make policy decisions and they are subject to short termism in their focus which is determined by short election cycles, cognitive biases and pressures from interest groups in the electorate. There is ample evidence of this phenomenon across many policy domains that discuss the front end loading effect of policy instruments that create legacy effects for future generations. More oganisational and behavioural scientists in DMDU is however a good idea.

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