There is a serious disorder at the heart of democratic governance, but we can manage it.

How to overcome political myopia

Jonathan Boston

There is a widely recognized disorder at the heart of democratic governance, one that poses a serious threat to the well-being of both current and future generations. Many commentators call this disorder short-termism, policy short-sightedness or political myopia. Others talk of a presentist bias, a temporal asymmetry, an intertemporal problem and intergenerational buck-passing. While certainly not the only problem afflicting contemporary governance, it undoubtedly constitutes a major one and is closely correlated to, if not one of the causes of, many others.

In a recently published book — Governing for the Future — I explore the nature, causes and consequences of the presentist bias in policy-making in advanced democracies. I also review many of the proposals that have been advanced over recent decades — from politicians, scholars, officials and others — to address its causes and/or counter its negative impacts.

In brief, the presentist bias refers to the tendency for governments to prioritize near-term goals, interests or policy consequences over long-term ones to the detriment of overall societal outcomes. As judged using widely accepted analytical methods, such a bias impairs society’s long-term welfare. Common manifestations include policy-makers: delaying measures to alter fiscally unsustainable policies and address looming problems, thereby forgoing less costly options; underinvesting in cost-effective preventative measures, disaster preparedness and early intervention programmes; regulating inadequately to sustain renewable resources above critical thresholds; and underinvesting in the construction and maintenance of long-term infrastructure.

While relatively widespread and persistent, the presentist bias appears to vary in strength across countries, governments and policy domains. It is especially evident when alleviating a policy problem requires significant non-simultaneous exchanges — that is, when the costs of the ‘policy investment’ are mostly front-loaded and the benefits are mostly back-loaded, often over lengthy periods. Politically, such measures are often referred to as ‘hard calls’. Matters are compounded when: the costs are expected to fall disproportionately on powerful interests while the benefits are spread more widely; there is greater uncertainty over the benefits than the costs; the ‘policy investment’ is fungible and reversible; there is limited cross-party support for the government’s preferred option; and there are trade-offs involving incommensurable ‘goods’. For reasons such as these, measures to protect important long-term environmental values and ecosystem services are particularly vulnerable to short-termist tendencies.

Talk of a temporal bias is common in political discourse. It is frequently mentioned in the written and oral testimony of current and former decision-makers in advanced democracies. As part of a recent research project, for instance, I interviewed over 90 politicians, political advisers, officials and academics in four countries — Britain, Finland, New Zealand and the United States — and spoke to numerous audiences of public servants and researchers. Amongst those interviewed, few questioned the reality or risks of policy short-termism, many were deeply concerned about the problem, and some expressed serious misgivings about the capacity of advanced democracies to protect the long-term public interest.

Such misgivings reflect the multiple and, in some cases, deeply rooted causes of the problem — constitutional, institutional, sociological, psychological and political. Not only are there the enduring governance challenges generated by human impatience, cognitive biases, short electoral cycles, a separation of powers, causal uncertainty, policy complexity and dynamic inconsistency, but there are also the sheer difficulties of securing agreement on solutions to long-term problems, especially in political contexts characterized by ideological polarization, strong populist tendencies and low levels of societal trust. To complicate matters, safeguarding many vital long-term interests requires international cooperation. Securing this, as demonstrated in the cases of climate change and ocean governance, poses formidable hurdles.

In short, the presentist bias constitutes a wicked governance problem. There are no silver bullets: shifting the political incentives facing elected officials permanently and decisively in favour of long-term interests is not a realistic prospect. Hence, the problem must be managed; it cannot be fully solved.

In developing strategies to safeguard the future we should be wary of placing undue faith in constitutional solutions, whether in the form of longer electoral cycles, specific amendments to protect the rights of future generations or the establishment of new political institutions, such as randomly-selected chambers, to represent future-oriented interests. Changing constitutions is difficult work, and there is little evidence thus far that constitutional reforms of the kind often proposed affect inter-temporal decision-making.

In my book, I propose a comprehensive and multi-pronged approach. The aim should be to enhance the quality of anticipatory governance through measures tailored to suit the particular attributes of individual democracies and the requirements of specific policy domains. The core elements of the approach recommended include:

  • a systematic effort to embed long-term considerations in day-to-day policy-making;
  • establishing new, or enhancing existing, future-focused advisory institutions to ensure that specific long-term interests are adequately represented in policy debates;
  • greater investment in foresight methodologies, such as horizon scanning, and a stronger integration of such work into normal policy-making processes;
  • better metrics for assessing economic, social and environmental performance, including more emphasis on stocks rather than flows and the development of meaningful measures of a nation’s comprehensive wealth;
  • more extensive use of consultative, deliberative and collaborative forums;
  • concerted efforts to nurture shared values and greater political trust; and
  • reforms to private sector governance, management and accounting practices to enhance the incentives for long-term decision-making.

Overall, pursuing a strategy of embeddedness is critical. The aim must be to mainstream, integrate and normalize the consideration of long-term issues and interests across the entire political system. To this end, requirements to anticipate and safeguard the future must be built into the DNA of every democratic institution, public management practice and policy-making process. Busy policy-makers and their advisers, for instance, must be incentivized to extend their time horizons through carefully designed commitment devices. These should include both substantive devices (such as statutory obligations to abide by principles of responsible fiscal management and the precautionary principle) and procedural devices (such as statutory obligations to publish regular intergenerational reports, develop long-term investment plans and infrastructure plans, set medium-term and long-term targets, and regularly assess all major risks and looming problems). Public sector managers, likewise, should have explicit stewardship responsibilities, for instance in relation to the long-term capability of their organizations and the regulatory frameworks which they oversee. Many advanced democracies have already adopted measures of this kind, but there is scope for additional and better approaches.

Protecting long-term interests in the face of powerful near-term pressures will never be easy. But this should not deter us from formulating carefully-tailored strategies to bring the future into short-term political focus — systematically, rigorously and comprehensively.

Jonathan Boston is Professor of Public Policy in the School of Government at Victoria University of Wellington. His recent research has focused on climate change policy, alleviating child poverty and anticipatory governance. Governing for the Future: Designing Democratic Institutions for a Better Tomorrow is published by Emerald Books.