Governing for the Future: Designing democratic institutions for a better tomorrow | Jonathan Boston

Review by Graham Smith

While there is widespread recognition that democratic governments are generally poor at dealing with long-term issues, there is a lack of systematic analysis of the variety of causes and responses to short-termism. Jonathan Boston, Professor of Public Policy at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, has responded to this gap with 576 pages based on research and interviews with over 90 politicians, civil servants, political advisers, researchers in universities and think tanks, senior business executives, and representatives of civil society organizations from across the world.

Boston asks some fundamental questions: How can democratically elected governments be persuaded to promote the long-term public interest? How can the political salience of long-term risks and vulnerabilities be enhanced? Are there ways of reforming democratic institutions and processes that will increase the likelihood of governments taking better care of tomorrow today? How, in short, can short-termism in policy-making be mitigated?”

The book begins with an analysis of the nature and causes of the “presentist bias” in democracies. Boston believes that this tendency is deliberate and calculated, widespread and persistent, and undesirable when considering a society’s overall welfare. He traces three broad sources of such short-term thinking in policy making: (1) the human condition (e.g. short term time preferences, bounded rationality, cognitive biases, and moral disengagement); (2) uncertainty (e.g. general uncertainty, policy complexity, and political uncertainty); and (3) various other constitutional, institutional, and political factors.

Boston is a great lover of lists and typologies which he uses to frame the different challenges. For example, he distinguishes 14 types of solutions to short-termism, capturing over 70 existing or proposed examples of action – therefore providing an incredibly useful summary of the field. Boston also does an excellent job of distilling six key ways to counter the presentist bias (p.188):

  1. change the motives of policy-makers (i.e. values, norms, preferences, and priorities) and activate future-oriented interests and concerns – internal drivers);
  2. incentivize policy-makers to give greater weight to long-term considerations (e.g. via changes to public opinion/preferences, political culture, the balance of political forces, accountability mechanisms, outcome-based performance measures, etc.) – external drivers;
  3. enhance the capacity of policy-makers to plan for the long-term and exercise foresight (e.g. using better information, analytical resources, horizon scanning, and more holistic policy frameworks);
  4. constrain the formal decision-rights and discretionary powers of policy-makers, especially in relation to issues with significant long-term impacts (e.g. through constitutional rules, procedural rules, and substantive policy rules);
  5. insulate policy-makers from short-term political pressures; and
  6. establish new coordinating mechanisms to enable decisions that would otherwise not be possible (e.g. via new and/or stronger international agencies and instruments).

In conclusion, Boston recognises that there are no silver bullets. A systematic strategy to embed future-oriented interests and long term thinking will require appropriately targeted measures at multiple levels of governance, and in multiple policy domains. It will also need to be sensitive to the particular political and institutional context. So, for example, in the UK this could mean exploiting the unique position of the House of Lords – a body that is not subject to the short-term electoral motivations of other legislative chambers and has traditionally considered itself a defender of long-term interests.

This book is a long read, and the hefty price tag will sadly deter many readers. However, this ambitious study contains many significant political insights and deserves our attention given the range and depth of its arguments.