Wednesday, June 29, 2022

How Future Generations Give a Voice in Government

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Sophie Howe has a really unusual job. As Wales’ Commissioner for Future Generations, her job is to call on policymakers when they are about to make a decision that could harm people in the long run. It’s a job that exists because Wales passed the 2015 Welfare of Future Generations Actsetting long-term goals and committing public institutions to work towards them.

It is part of a growing, global movement to protect future generations. Sweden introduced a Ministry of the Future in 2014, Scotland decided to future generations commissioner in 2021, and the United Arab Emirates made a similar commitment to future generations

In a recent UN report, “Our common agendaSecretary General António Guterres made a series of recommendations on protecting the people of the future. He called for the appointment of a UN special envoy to future generations, as well as a declaration to future generations, which would oblige member states to create their own governance mechanisms to ensure long-term well-being.

Howe regularly provides input to other governments and the UN on how best to move this movement forward, as she is one of the few people who actually has concrete experience to put it into practice. We discussed what she learned in her six years as Commissioner for Future Generations, how she handles potential trade-offs between the interests of current and future people, and how she can represent people who aren’t even born yet.

Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

sigal samuel

What does a typical day look like for you? How exactly do you get governments to think about the long-term effects of their decisions?

Sophie Howe

The law describes our long-term wellness goals, and all of our public institutions have these duties to work toward achieving those goals. So it’s my job to check and judge how well they do. And then also to give advice and support to help them with that.

I look at a lot of evidence about future trends and scenarios, and try to figure out the big problems that future generations will face and what the government needs to act on now. I’ve researched things like: what should we do to not only deal with inequality now, but what are the future trends and scenarios that could exacerbate inequality – and how should we act now to stop it? I take that kind of evidence to the government.

And then there are many of me who call the madness, who ask these questions: why do you do that? Can you explain to me how you applied the interests of future generations to that decision?

sigal samuel

Did your call actually lead to policy change?

Sophie Howe

One example where my recommendations had a significant impact was with all these changes to our transportation policies, starting with the: cancel this major road to be built in Wales† It would use all the borrowing capacity of the government to build this stretch of highway. I stepped in and asked them to show me how that was in line with the Future Generations Act and with the goal of a more equal Wales. You say you are a government focused on poverty reduction and yet 25 percent of the lowest-income families in this region do not own a car, so why are you spending all the borrowing capacity on a scheme that does not benefit them?

Calling out the madness and saying this is a terrible idea and the Welsh government needs to explain itself – that was really effective. Not only did they cancel that road building programme, we then completely overhauled the entire transport strategy for all of Wales and we shifted our infrastructure spending.

sigal samuel

When you think about your work for future generations, what do you think about your purpose? Is it to maximize the potential range of opportunities for future generations, which could mean trying to maximize economic growth? Or is it to ensure that the present world remains intact for them, which could mean preserving the environment? If it’s both, what do you do when there are compromises?

Sophie Howe

The seven welfare targets in the Future Generations Act outline the vision for Wales we want, and it has been developed in consultation with the citizens of Wales. It says that where those conflicts are, find the things that make the greatest positive contribution to all goals.

So in that example of the road – if your primary mission is to improve the economy, then building a major road might be a good short term solution. However, it is not only my duty to improve the economy. I have a duty to improve all these pillars of well-being. We want to improve health, tackle socio-economic deprivation, have ecological resilience… So the mission is to do the best we can about all of our long-term goals [when aggregated]†

sigal samuel

I’m glad you said the vision came about in a conversation with the people of Wales, because I wanted to ask, how can you be sure you’re coming up with the right vision for future generations if you can’t ask future people what they want? appreciate the most because they are not yet born? Is there a concern that who will represent future generations will use their own biases and assumptions to shape that vision?

Sophie Howe

Yes, that’s a problem. So we asked the question: What is the Wales you want to leave behind for your children and grandchildren and future generations? And we had a national conversation with the citizens of Wales. There were about 10,000 people involved in that conversation, and it was everything from town hall meetings to young farmers’ associations to online platforms. All that was brought together to form the goals that people wanted.

So while, yes, it’s fair criticism to ask what if that was the wrong view, I’d say at least we have something we’re working towards. With the rest of the world’s governing system, things can change from one political term to another, and we don’t really know what we’re aiming for.

sigal samuel

Right. One obvious thing that seems to anchor short-termism is our political fabric, such as the fact that we have these two- and four-year election cycles that will encourage politicians to simply cater to the interests of voters alive today. . To what extent do you think we need completely new political structures or forms of governance?

Sophie Howe

It’s really hard, isn’t it? We could have a committee instead of a commissioner, or it could be some kind of infrastructure speaking out on behalf of future generations versus the democratically elected politicians working on the here and now.

I suppose you could go further than we have gone in Wales and give rights to future generations. As the case in Australia recently where young people have challenged the government around his investment in fossil fuels, saying the government is jeopardizing their future. If a Future Generations Act were to give specific rights to future individuals, maybe that sort of thing? [government investment] can be legally challenged in court, and you can even intervene to stop certain decisions.

sigal samuel

This general legal approach seems to be gaining in popularity. In 2015, a group of young Americans served the Juliana v. United States case, arguing that the failure of the government to cope with climate change will have serious consequences for them and future generations, and that it constitutes a violation of their rights. We have seen similar cases in CanadaThe Netherlandsand Germany

But I’ve noticed that there’s a big gap between people talking about protecting future generations or the long-term future. When some people talk about the long term, they think about 50 years, and other people think about 1 million years. What’s your take on the wider one? long-term movement associated with effective altruismwho tends to think about ensuring the distant future of humanity?

Sophie Howe

In our case, we’re generally talking about planning with the next 25 years in mind, which is clearly nowhere near the millions of years some people talk about. But when you consider that the public sector often works from year to year, that’s quite an achievement for them. And you have to bring it back to something that people can understand, because the further into the future you go, the more people get disconnected — and also, the less valid your scenarios and assumptions are.

sigal samuel

Because you’re just not sure what the future holds and you can’t predict the results of your decisions?

Sophie Howe

Yes. If we could just make people think about the next generation or the generation after that, that would be a significant step forward… I’d say it’s a stepping stone.

sigal samuel

Another question. Do you like your job or is it frustrating?

Sophie Howe

I absolutely love it. I regularly pull my hair out and feel utterly frustrated. And I wish that progress was faster. But that’s why I invest so much time in the more global movement around [long-term thinking] also. Because I think if that becomes the norm around the world, then it becomes potentially transformational.

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