The weekend debate: How do we make government think long term?

“We must think long term” is a common cry in politics and government. Far easier said than done, but whether it is investing in early years education, making decisions over building new physical infrastructure such as railways, setting rules for pensions or a myriad of other decisions, government repeatedly makes decisions which only work well if they are stuck to for a long period of time and whose positive impact may not be directly felt for many years. For example, the failure to make decisions for the long-run and stick with them is one of the reasons infrastructure projects cost more in the UK than elsewhere.

The desire to think long term was a frequent part of Nick Clegg’s rhetoric last year, usually using the current buzzwords of choice – “horizon shifting” – as in his speech last September.

However, when it comes to making changes in how government is actually conducted, there has been very little done so far other than fixed-term Parliaments – which give a degree of certainty to long-term planning, especially if it is a hung Parliament.

Moreover, Labour’s one serious attempt to get long-term planning for infrastructure work – PFI and PPP (which, by using legal contracts, made it hard for governments to change their mind over projects) – has been heavily discredited for high costs and post work in many cases, including the notorious collapse of PPP on the London Underground.

The Institute for Government’s research has found that the longer a Secretary of State is in post, the better run their department tends to be – though the longer the chief civil servant has been in post, the worse run it is (albeit that the statistical correlations are weak). So simply eschewing regular reshuffles is one thing the government can do.

What else should it do?

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