OPINION: Push for long-term thinking

LISA HARKER, deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

Policy makers are notorious for their short-sightedness. In part this is because of the realities of working on four- or five-year election cycles. But the relationship between politicians and the media is also partly to blame.

Which is why the establishment of the Government's Strategy Unit has been so important. Here advisers are freed from the usual constraints of short-term policy making or departmental boundaries and are charged with examining the opportunities and threats posed by longer-term trends in society. Through collection of factual information, informed projections and scenario-building, their work offers the opportunity to reconsider the mind-sets in which policy making is made.

Grasping the opportunity to influence long-term policy thinking is crucial for anyone seeking policy change. Lobby groups often deride the fact that the very terms of the debate being posed by policy makers are wrong: here lies the chance to try to change the terms.

But the challenge remains to convince the Government to be brave enough to share its thinking about the future direction of policy. The publication of the Government's cross-cutting review of childcare last week illustrated how departments are reluctant to think in the long term.

The review was established to develop a 2010 vision for childcare and was an opportunity to set out the likely shape and scope of childcare services in years to come. It debated all these questions and its conclusions will set the course of the shape of childcare in the coming decade.

How disappointing then that such important decisions about the future could not have been more confidently aired. A press release launching the report drew attention to the spending decisions that had already been announced in the 2002 spending review but little attempt was made to explain the vision. It was a missed opportunity to demonstrate that the Government can think long term. And it denied parents and professionals the chance to digest and debate some long-term thinking.

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