Political institutions and policymaking

New political institutions and major reforms of existing institutions are likely to be necessary for democracies to commit to and implement sustainable development. Already, there are examples around the world that are part of national or local parliaments, or work as independent or semi-independent watchdogs and advocates. Such bodies have a range of powers, from commenting on, and even vetoing, laws and policies that conflict with sustainable development and the interests of future generations, to providing advice and research.

A range of such institutions, identified by the UN Secretary General in his report ‘Intergenerational solidarity and the needs of future generations‘, came together in Hungary in 2014.

FDSD, in partnership with the World Future Council, published ideas for ‘The Mandate of a UN High Commissioner for Future Generations‘ to contribute to Rio+20, following this with a detailed discussion document ‘Committing to the Future we want: a High Commissioner for Future Generations at Rio+20‘, and together with WWF-UK has explored possible institutions and related governance changes for the UK in ‘Taking the longer view: UK governance options for a finite planet‘.

A key challenge going forward is to consider how such institutions can have impact and fit within democratic political systems, even while incorporating appropriate democratic principles, particularly of participation. ‘The Democratic Case for an Office for Future Generations’ argues for the need to carefully consider and enhance the democratic legitimacy and design of future-oriented institutions as part of wider democratic system change.

The Hungarian Parliament’s Deputy Commissioner for Fundamental Rights or ‘Ombudsman for Future Generations’ is responsible for protecting the interests of future generations. He or she can given an opinion on draft laws and policies affecting future generations; and can be petitioned by people feeling that the relevant constitutional rights have been affected, with the potential for review in the Constitutional Court.

The Committee for the Future in the Finnish Parliament is made up of 17 parliamentarians from all political parties. Their focus is primarily on the future, and through this lens comment on government policies and conduct research on future issues including participatory methods such as hearings, or crowd-sourcing. Their outputs are generally considered by the Finnish Assembly.

The Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Canada provides “parliamentarians with objective, independent analysis and recommendations on the federal government’s efforts to protect the environment and foster sustainable development.” The Commissioner conducts performance audits, monitors federal department SD strategies and monitors environmental petitions.

Sustainable development also challenges existing approaches to policymaking.

Many problems and desired outcomes cross-cut traditional policy areas (such as health or business). At the same time, the multiple dimensions and goals of sustainable development have highlighted the inadequacies of some traditional policy tools: over-reliance on economic models for planning, policy choice and measuring success; difficulties in incorporating future needs; and inadequate opportunities for broader participation in decision-making.

A Multi-criteria Mapping Tool has been developed at the University of Sussex to be “an interactive, multicriteria appraisal method for exploring contrasting perspectives on complex, uncertain and contested issues.” The tool does not avoid presenting the challenging trade-offs that will confront decision-makers and people-participation in such discussions.