Schneider, G. How Far Do Governments Look Ahead?

How Far Do Governments Look Ahead? A Comparative Analysis of the Factors Contributing to the Variance in the Time Horizons of 40 States. Frankfurt, Haag und Herchen, 1989, 163 pages.

The futures field is notable for its plurality of perspectives and this sometimes places great demands on our ability to respond to texts which incorporate very different assumptions and approaches. The two in question are both demanding upon the reader and also very different in emphasis and approach. Neither are ‘mainstream’ futures texts, yet each makes useful contributions to the field.

How Far Do Goverments Look Ahead…? was adapted from a Master’s thesis at the University of Zurich. It’s true to say, I think, that the methodology employed dominates the book – and what a methodology it is! The author takes us on a long and involved journey through theories, hypotheses and a very detailed content analysis of futures-related policy documents from each of the countries surveyed. The main difficulty of the approach is made explicit in the author’s admission that the “ambiguity of the documents constitutes the main problem of validity” (p.11). This being so I was puzzled by the prominence accorded to detailed statistical analysis which seems to raise as many problems as it solves.

Yet the argument is worth following to its conclusion. It appears that countries with so-called planned economies (such as China, Indonesia, Bulgaria and Poland) have “aggrigate time horizons” of ten or more years, while most western democracies do not appear to look much more than a one year ahead (Table 9, pages 97 and 98). Yet it is clear that the now-familiar (but generalised) calls for longer-term thinking in government conceal theoretical and practical problems which futures people may need to consider more carefully. It’s useful to have this verified empirically. The author concludes that “neither consistently long nor consistently short time spans are a requisite for “good” policies….Satisfying outcomes only ensue when politicans search for an adequate framework for an issue” (p. 140).

Perhaps the major conclusion to emerge from this study is that “the most important dilemmas of the global community probably will be solved only when a strategy on different temporal levels is put forward” (p. 140). This is such an important notion that it could well have been developed further. For example, an attempt could have been made to match different time-frames with different policy areas and levels of governance. However, given the dominance of the methodology, I suspect that the latter provided the main rationale for carrying out the study in the first place. Hence the conclusions seen rather ‘lightweight’ in comparison. However, Schneider has provided an exhaustive account of his labours and there is no doubt that specialists working in related areas will find it stimulating and suggestive of further enquiry.

Published as part of Time-frames and turbulence, in Futures 22, 7, September 1990, pp. 774-6.