Building Institutions for the Long-Term: the Need for Normative Transparency

Peter Lawrence - 5th December 2014

The Oxford Martin Programme on human rights for future generations brought together politicians, philosophers, and NGOs in its conference on ‘How can institutional mechanism safeguard for tomorrow, today?’ on 21 October 2014.  The following comprises some impressions from a participant in this conference.

Simon Caney emphasised that the drivers of short term policy –-making were varied, with some incentive structures easier to modify than others. He proposed three criteria for evaluating institutional proposals aimed at promoting long-term policy-making: effectiveness, political feasibility and moral legitimacy.  He then explored some specific institutional proposals, some of which included “mainstreaming” of long-term thinking, for example, through the incorporation of long-term thinking into audit systems. Such systems have the advantage of being less vulnerable to political whims.

Other participants at the conference addressed specific institutional reforms:

  • Juliana Bidadanure explored whether the introduction of youth quotas into parliaments would increase the likelihood of meeting the demands of intergenerational justice. She noted that while there is mixed evidence in terms of whether young people are more or less inclined to care about the future than older persons, there are nevertheless instrumental reasons for supporting youth quotas in Parliament.
  • Joerg Tremmel argued that the time had come for a new type of Constitution involving a fourth branch which represented the interests of future generations. He was cautious about such a branch having an overly prescriptive role owing to disputes about what policy best represents future generations’ interests.
  • Peter Davies, Wales’ Commissioner for Sustainable Futures introduced a practitioner’s perspective drawing on his heavy involvement in current processes to reform Welsh lawmaking including new reporting requirements that would require political parties in the lead up to elections to have their policies tested in terms of long-term impacts.
  • Oresk Tynkkynen – the youngest ever member of the Finnish Parliament – shared insights into the workings of the Finnish Parliamentary Committee for the Future over its 25 year life. While the Committee lacks teeth in terms of its capacity to override legislative proposals, Tynkkynen emphasised the educative role that it played in relation to policy makers.  This includes its role as an “incubator” for future prime ministers, given that over the last 25 years all Finnish PMs had spent some time working for the committee.
  • Peter Lawrence argued that democratic legitimacy criteria should be used for evaluating international proposals for factoring in the interests of future generations, including a UN Commissioner for future generations. He argued that, in spite of the fractured nature of international society, the ‘demos’ (public) could be extended into the future by relying on an interest-based notion of representation.
  • Catherine Pearce from the World Future Council gave a convincing argument as to why a UN Commissioner for future generations was required.  She emphasised the role of moral leadership that would be entailed in such a position. Her presentation stimulated an interesting debate into the question of strategy, in terms of how best to shake citizens out of complacency to take an interest in future generations.  During the debate it was suggested that innovative communication methods could help bring alive the rather abstract questions of future generations.

I came away from this Conference more convinced than ever of the need to make explicit the normative underpinnings behind institutional proposals which factor-in future generations’ interests. Being clear about such normative underpinnings can help in building political support for reforms. ‘Mainstreaming’- style institutional reform (such as accounting methods) can only be a positive.

Introducing new institutions with a specific mandate to represent the interests of future generations is justified given the tendency for their interests to be marginalised. Such mechanisms, however, face a dilemma. If they lack teeth, they may have less direct effect, but be more inclined to survive changes in political fortunes. If they have teeth, they may run the risk of never being introduced. The workshop provided an excellent example of the value of interdisciplinary research and debate around a vital contemporary issue.

Author profile

Dr Peter Lawrence is a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Law, Tasmania, and author of Justice for Future Generations, Climate Change and International Law (Edward Elgar 2014).


Peter Lawrence, “Building Institutions for the Long-Term: the Need for Normative Transparency” (OxHRH Blog, 5 December 2014), [Date of Access].

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *