Thinking about tomorrow today

The publication of the essay entitled ‘Time and space for policy. Prospects for the Scientific Council for Government Policy after half a century of tidal political change' in the autumn of 2023 marked the end of the WRR’s fiftieth year. Prof. Ernst Hirsch Ballin (WRR member from 2014-2019 and now an advisory member) wrote the essay to reflect on the WRR’s fifty-year history. A critical retrospective and reflection with a view to the future: how can scientific policy advice contribute to renewed trust in democracy and the rule of law?

Enlarge image WEBportrait Ernst Hirsch Ballin
Image: ©WRR / Photographer: Arenda Oomen

Changes in the political tide

"In the fifty years since its inception, the WRR has been through some turbulent times, with numerous changes in the social and political tide. In the late 1960s, society cast off its traditional binds as established political ideas began to be questioned. There was a determination to shape the future. This resulted in the establishment of the WRR, tasked with focusing specifically on integrated and cohesive long-term policy. This was followed by a trend towards deregulation as the government allowed the market to hold sway across a range of areas. This neoliberal model ultimately came to an end in the wake of a series of crises, including 9/11, the banking crisis, the financial crisis and crises relating to the climate, international security and the pressures of migration."

Restrictions in time and space

"At the start, the WRR opted to pursue its mission based on integrated visions of the future. But this soon proved unachievable and it opted instead for a less ambitious approach, concentrating more on guiding and supporting change rather than directing it. In doing so, it focuses on longer term trends than any individual government's term of office, something that democracies generally fail to do effectively. After all, the time horizon of a democracy is ultimately at odds with the notion of long-term policy thinking. Yet the major issues such as climate and energy actually demand long-term policy.”

“It’s not only time that places restrictions on democracy: the same also applies to space. Clearly, the Dutch parliament's powers do not stretch any further than the Netherlands. But such major issues as the climate, environment, migration, financial stability and military security go far beyond the country’s borders. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that these issues are evolving in the context of complex international relations.”

“Responding to issues of this kind is what gives the WRR its mission and meaning in our age and in doing so it looks beyond the restrictions in time and space that are inevitable in any democratic country like the Netherlands. Hence the title of my essay: ‘Time and space for policy’.”

A focus on young and future generations

“When attempting to address these major societal issues, it’s essential to take account of the rights of different generations. After all, government policy not only affects voters, but also those who have not yet reached voting age and even involves future generations. These generations may not yet have a vote, but they’ll definitely feel the effect of current policy.”

“In all of this, we must pay close attention to weak signals emerging from society and from outside the Netherlands and this is one of the key lessons highlighted in my essay. But this is not easy. One key word that I would like to highlight with regard to the role of the WRR is complexity. Unlike in the early days of the WRR, we now know how complex trends and developments can be, going beyond our borders, and that the future cannot be brought under control.”

Identifying and mitigating risks

“The German sociologist Armin Nassehi recently wrote a book on the subject of unease; I refer to it in the final section of my essay. In it, he reveals something very important. He says that while politics may claim to have gained control over a specific problem, the public may feel very different and this raises risks for society's trust in politics and governance. In order to avoid this sense of unease being intensified, Nassehi says that it's essential to identify and mitigate serious risks in order to make them tolerable. This is an important insight. In various publications, the WRR has shown that these risks exist across numerous areas. In the policy brief 'No time to lose: from reception to integration of asylum migrants’ from 2015, for example, we point out that the government must not waste a moment in involving asylum migrants in society, for example through employment. By doing that, you reduce the risks of frustration.”

“Besides that, if a problem emerges, it's not just about limiting the damage it causes, but also exploring what’s needed to prevent society facing a similar situation in the future. There are also lessons to be learned from the past. Take the Delta Plan. In the wake of the disastrous storm surge of 1953, the response was not limited to repairing the dykes, people also developed policy to reduce the risks of a potential new disaster, however small the chance of it happening. This effectively made it possible to mitigate the risks.”

Providing expertise for democracy based on the rule of law

“By focusing its scientific research on major societal issues and on the longer term, the WRR can help to identify trends that could potentially disrupt society. There is then of course a need for timely policy aimed at limiting those risks. This is why policymakers and politicians should feel a greater sense of urgency in response to the WRR's reports and those of other advisory councils, such as the Advisory Council on International Issues and the Health Council of the Netherlands. The advice they provide can offer the expertise required to enable democracy to operate based on the rule of law. Moreover, politicians and policymakers should not shy away from critical and self-critical reflection. They should repeatedly ask themselves: have you already thought of tomorrow today or the day after tomorrow? In this process, practice makes perfect. You need to be mindful of long-term developments and the risks they involve and then have the courage to draw other people's attention to subjects that politicians may find uncomfortable. In other words, take note of weak signals, acknowledge the risk of fatal disruptions and mitigate the negative effects of that. In a democracy, we owe that to society and also to young and future generations who do not yet have a vote. It’s all about their life prospects, here and in the world around us. There’s a role in this for knowledge organisations like the WRR.”