Sophie Howe is future generations commissioner for Wales, an unusual role that tasks a public servant with countering short-termism and ensuring government policy stays true to, and progresses towards, the country's guiding principles. It's a principle the corporate world can learn something from, too.
Her answers were edited for brevity and clarity.
What led to the creation of this role?
When the government of Wales was established in 1999, there was a clause in the legislation which stipulated that the government should have sustainable development as a central organizing principle. In reality, that didn't really mean much. Some ministers wanted to make the requirement tougher, so they created this legislation [known as] the Well-being of Future Generations Act, which was passed in 2015 and required the appointment of an independent commissioner to oversee its implementation and the change that needed to happen.
Which policy areas are the most relevant to your work?
There are six areas that can make the biggest contribution towards our long-term wellbeing goals: housing, land-use planning, transport, job skills, tackling inequality and keeping people healthy—not just treating people when they're ill, but trying to prevent them from becoming ill in the first place. All of these issues are interconnected, and we look at them in an integrated and holistic way. Then that's when we start to offer long-term benefits for the future.
What are some of the changes you were able to implement?
I scrutinize the Welsh government budget to see whether their investment decisions are investing for current and future generations. For instance, while they were increasing their spending on direct action on climate change and on renewables, they were also spending about 25% of the infrastructure investment budget on building roads. So one thing was obviously canceling out the other thing.
We now have a completely new transport strategy, and there's a moratorium on all road-building in Wales. Building roads to deal with the problem of congestion is not in the interest of future generations, because we just carry on emitting carbon, we carry on polluting our air. As a commissioner, I was able to get the government not just to change that one decision, but to change the whole approach to transport. That's a massive shift in terms of how the budget is spent in the interests of future generations.
The other thing I would mention is reforms to the education system, which, as it was, was not fit for the future. We were still working on the basis of imparting knowledge to children and testing them on how they are able to recall that knowledge. So we have reformed our curriculum in Wales from ages four to 14, basing learning around the principles of our wellbeing goals. Children in Wales now will be educated to be ethical and informed citizens, to be creative and enterprising learners and healthy and active citizens. The next thing I'm working on is to reform the national exam system for those aged 14 and older.
Do you think there's a space for a role like yours in a company's board or other governance institutions?
It certainly could be replicated in the private sector. Some companies are ahead of the public sector and ahead of governments on these things, because they have to be thinking about the future to ensure their survival, particularly around climate change and its cost—investing now to deliver their long term future.
In Wales, even though the law doesn't cover the private sector, I am increasingly being approached by the private sector, who want to know how to get on board. [Businesses] like the fact that there is a long-term vision for Wales that doesn't change from one election to the next, and can plan ahead accordingly. We're working with a number of companies to start reporting their actions in line with wellbeing considerations.
When it comes to concerns about climate change, there's both a fighting spirit but also a certain defeatism, with posts on social media questioning whether it's even worth the fight, particularly from young people. What's your reaction to that?
Defeatism is almost like the new denialism. We can't allow ourselves to be defeated. It is incredibly tough for us to meet our carbon emissions targets in Wales and indeed across the world. But it's not impossible. If ever you think that you're too small, look at how Greta Thunberg, one young woman, has probably achieved more in terms of raising awareness about inaction on climate change than anything politicians have done.
Wales is a small country, and we are reforming our whole system to make it better, whilst also trying to deal with the symptoms of a failed system. I'm realistic, but I'm also hopeful about what people can do when they have to gather around a common vision.