Participation in Long-Term Decision-Making (PALO) was a research project that explored the problem of short-termism in public decision-making. The PALO project ran from September 2017 to February 2022. The consortium consisted of four organisations: the University of Turku, the Natural Resource Institute Finland, Åbo Akademi University and Tampere University. The research was funded by the Strategic Research Council at the Academy of Finland.
The key goals of the project
The goal of the PALO research project was to examine time horizons and prospects of future-regarding decision-making among individuals, in their interaction e.g. related to ecological problems, as well as within different political institutions. In addition, the goal was to explore what kinds of inclusive and participatory mechanisms could enhance future-regarding policymaking.
The PALO was a multidisciplinary research project involving political scientists, philosophers, economists, psychologists and environmental social scientists. The project explored the problem of short-termism from variety of perspectives, including philosophical and moral issues related to short-termism in political decision-making. In particular, we considered the role of the so-called ‘all affected’ principle as a principle of political inclusion. While the principle is important from a moral perspective, its practical applicability is limited especially in the case of future generations. Yet, given the urgency of problems such as climate change, it is important to find ways or representing future generations’ interests in political decision-making.
In order to examine future orientation among individuals and in the contexts of various political problems and institutions, the project conducted a number of interviews, surveys, survey experiments, choice experiments and laboratory experiments. It organized pilot projects on citizen deliberation (so-called deliberative mini-publics), experiments within deliberative mini-publics and field experiments on their effects. In addition, it engaged in co-creation of new types of participatory planning processes.
The project produced more than 100 academic publications. The PALO project has provided new insights into individual attitudes towards the future, and the roles of communication and empathy in future-oriented decision-making. It has analyzed factors contributing to future-regarding and long-term policymaking in the Finnish political system, especially in environmental governance, and in the EU. Finally, it has explored the capacity of citizen deliberation to enhance future-regarding thinking and long-term policymaking.
Short-termism in individual decision-making
The idea of the project was to examine contextual factors affecting individual future orientation in different choice situations. Future-regarding policymaking requires current people’s capacity to consider one’s own future interests, as well as the interests of subsequent generations. There are also situations in which currently living people should be ready to make efforts and sacrifices in order to ensure the welfare of future generations.
The PALO project conducted various types of experiments regarding individual time horizons and willingness to make contributions for future benefits. There is a widespread belief that voters are to blame for democratic short-termism (Jacobs and Matthews 2012). However, temporal patterns of citizens’ political preferences are still an emerging area of research.
In order to study the citizens’ preferences toward future-regarding politics, the researchers used a survey with a probabilistic sample of the Finnish voting-age population (n = 1,906), which includes a measure of the extent to which citizens think democratic decision-making should maximize welfare today or ensure future well-being (Rapeli et al. 2021).
The survey measure of future-oriented political thinking is the first-ever attempt to tap into perceptions of how much focus the democratic process should put into present versus future wellbeing. The results show that in terms of future-oriented politics, the most important explanations seem to be individuals’ general time orientation, ideological orientation, and political trust. Notably, political interest was found to be linked with a shorter time horizon. A possible interpretation for this finding is that attentiveness to partisan realities of democratic politics is associated with a focus on present-day politics rather than political investment for the future. The results also showed that ordinary citizens hold rather consistent views regarding the preferred temporal focus of democratic output and most of them seem quite future-regarding in their political thinking.
Further findings from a conjoint survey experiment (n = 830) show somewhat similar results (Christensen & Rapeli 2020). The research demonstrates that while a slight preference towards more immediate policy rewards is discernible, citizens are not as impatient as has been widely assumed. Especially people with higher education are more likely to choose policies the benefits of which materialize in the distant future.
The project also examined individual future orientation through several decision-making experiments with real monetary incentives. One of these experiments investigated, the link between empathy and altruism in an asymmetric choice situation that mimicked intergenerational relations. The results indicate that there are measures to enhance altruism in an asymmetric choice situation and that these measures have a different impact on people with different levels of empathy. (Herne et al 2022).
In addition, the PALO conducted project surveys and choice experiments on natural resources problems. For example, a survey was conducted on forest owners’ willingness to participate in payment for ecosystem services scheme called Landscape Value Trade (LVT) in South-West Finland (Mäntymaa et al 2020). According to our results, almost ¾ of the respondents would possibly or certainly participate in the mechanism. In addition, the voluntary nature of the LVT initiative simultaneously acted as a cost-reducing element. The results could help in detecting some of the key features of the supply side of LVT initiatives.
Future orientation in political decision-making
One of the key goals of the PALO project was to produce new knowledge on future orientation among citizens and policymakers. Based on unique surveys conducted among both political elites and citizens, it appears that policymakers are actually more future-oriented than ordinary citizens. In addition to the population-based survey of Finnish citizens, PALO conducted a survey among the policymaking elite in Finland. The sample (n=670) was representative of the top-level politicians, public officials and other policy experts from Finland. Similar samples, which are able to measure attitudes among the top-tier policymakers across all policy spectra in an entire democratic country, are extremely rare. The findings demonstrated that in comparison with ordinary citizens, political elites are more concerned about climate change and willing to act in order mitigate it (Rapeli and Koskimaa 2021).
Based on surveys and interviews conducted among political elites, the pressures caused by elections and the media shorten the time horizons in political decision-making, which seems to be in line with previous studies regarding democratic myopia. According to the same surveys and interviews, future-oriented policies are also supported by long-standing political strategies. Researchers found that the main enablers of future-oriented environmental policy are international commitments, semi-autonomous public administration and preparatory processes that include all relevant stakeholders (Koskimaa et al. 2021; Rapeli and Koskimaa 2021).
While these findings suggest that a successful long-term environmental policy endures primarily because of strategic forces that operate outside the immediate control of the institutions of representative democracy, the system relies on political support from parties, parliaments and governments. There are also ways to enhance long-term policymaking in representative politics by inclusive committees reaching across party divides and beyond parliamentary terms.
It is also notable that Finland already has a parliamentary institution that is designed to support future-regarding decision-making and future foresight. The Committee for the Future is Europe’s only permanent parliamentary standing committee dedicated to future matters. The task of the committee is defined in general terms ‘to generate dialogue with the government on major future problems and opportunities’.
The study on the Committee for the Future characterizes its impact on time span in Finnish politics as largely indirect (Koskimaa & Raunio 2020). The results show that in order to connect it to parliamentary work, it should routinely produce statements on government bills evaluating them in terms of long-term consequences. However, the risk is that this would increase pressures causing short-termism in representative politics also within the Committee for the Future.
The patterns of long-term governance were analysed also in the EU context (Vogt and Pukarinen 2022). Based on interviews, factors enhancing long-term governance were identified. The Commission as a technocratic institution and the Parliament as a transnational deliberative body were regarded as the most important institutional structures enhancing long-term governance. In terms of policymaking, the EU’s interest in strengthening the role of strategic foresight in regulation is clearly enhancing long-term decision-making.
Citizen deliberation in long-term decision-making
The attempts to strengthen democratic legitimacy through strengthening the role non-democratic actors and processes may give rise to backlash and undermine the democratic legitimacy of the system. Therefore, it would be important to develop democratic procedures for future-regarding decision-making. Inclusive and participatory mechanisms may actually be necessary in future-regarding policymaking because, like ‘current generations, also ‘future generations’ consist of people with various types of interests, which may not be fully accounted for by specific individual officials for future generations, for example.
For such reasons, the project explored in particular whether deliberative citizen participation in so-called deliberative minipublics would help expand the time horizons among participants. We were also interested in various ways in which deliberative minipublics could be coupled with other political processes in order to enhance better informed and reflected policymaking.
The project included three pilot projects on citizen participation. The first concerned whether a Citizens’ Jury can act as a source of reliable voter information in the context of a government-initiated (top-down) referendum. A Citizens’ Jury on Referendum Options was organized in the municipality of Mustasaari/Korsholm in 2019. The referendum concerned a contested municipal merger with Vaasa, a decision with concrete long-term consequences. This was the first time the Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR) process was carried out in Europe, as well as the first time it was organized in the context of a government-initiated referendum. The CIR process entails a Citizens’ Jury which formulates a statement summarizing key facts as well as the main arguments for and against the referendum issue. The statement is sent to all voters before the referendum.
Based on the surveys conducted among the members of the Jury (n=21) and citizens of Mustasaari/Korsholm (n=1000), the results show that jury’s participants were satisfied with the deliberative process and found it impartial. A large majority of voters in Korsholm had read the Citizen Statement written by the Jury and thought it was a useful and trustworthy source of information.
The impact of reading the statement by the Jury was examined through a field experiment that was conducted before the statement was sent to all voters in the municipality. Based on the experiment, reading the statement increased merger-related factual knowledge, issue efficacy and perspective-taking (Setälä et al. 2020). The statement also increased trust in the Jury and other political actors, including those perceived as being on the ‘other side’ (Setälä et al. 2021). Overall, the results shot that CIR-type mini-publics could be used to alleviate distrust in circumstances of political polarization more generally.
The second pilot project on citizen participation was, due to Covid-19 related restrictions, held online in September 2020. It was organized together with the Regional Council of Satakunta and it dealt with the long-term Regional Plan that reaches to the year 2050. In order to engage citizens with the Regional Plan drafting process and acquire citizen opinions about the preferred courses of action regarding the future, a random sample (n=6000) of people of Satakunta were surveyed on their opinions and invited to a Regional Citizens’ Assembly to discuss the subject. A field experiment was conducted about the potential of democratic deliberation and separate visualization exercise (namely Future Design) to enhance participants’ future orientation and time perspective.
The results of this pilot show that democratic deliberation enhanced participants’ capacity to consider future generations’ perspectives and willingness to make sacrifices to ensure their well-being (Kulha et al 2021). However, the findings suggest that the mental time travel exercise had only a modest impact on perspective-taking.
The third pilot included a Citizens’ Jury on Climate Actions. The main goal of this pilot was to provide citizens’ input on the fairness of planned climate actions for the Medium-Term Climate Policy Plan. The jury was commissioned by the Climate Policy Roundtable and the Ministry of the Environment, and this was the first nation-wide deliberative mini-public on climate issues in Finland. The task of the Citizens’ Jury was to assess the fairness and effectiveness of the proposed measures pertaining to traffic, housing and food, as well as to draw up a statement on their views. The jury’s statement was taken into account in the draft plan.
In addition to organizing deliberative mini-publics, the project examined ways in which deliberative mini-publics can and should be embedded with existing institutions and practices of policymaking. In order to ensure the impact of mini-publics, they should be properly coupled with policy processes. In order to ensure systemic impact of mini-publics, they should be institutionalized and used regularly.
However, there seem to be many obstacles to such developments, not least the negative attitudes among political elites. The results of surveys conducted by Koskimaa and Rapeli suggest that citizens have high levels of trust in the capacity of a deliberative minipublics to contribute to policymaking processes. However, policymakers are more sceptical about minipublics. This finding is important because it may well have implications for the willingness of policymakers to adopt mini-publics as a part of the democratic system.
References (PALO’s publications)
Christensen, Henrik Serup & Rapeli, Lauri (2020): Immediate rewards or delayed gratification? A conjoint survey experiment of the public’s policy preferences. Policy Sciences.
Herne, Kaisa; Hietanen, Jari; Lappalainen, Olli; Palosaari, Esa (2022): The influence of role awareness, empathy induction and trait empathy on dictator game giving. PLOS One.
Koskimaa, Vesa & Raunio, Tapio (2020): Encouraging a longer time horizon: the Committee for the Future in the Finnish Eduskunta. The Journal of Legislative Studies.
Koskimaa, Vesa; Rapeli, Lauri & Hiedanpää, Juha (2021): Governing through strategies: How does Finland sustain a future-oriented environmental policy for the long term. Futures, 125.
Kulha, Katariina; Leino, Mikko; Setälä, Maija; Jäske, Maija & Himmelroos, Staffan (2021): For the Sake of the Future: Can Democratic Deliberation Help Thinking and Caring about Future Generations? Sustainability 13(10):5487.
Mäntymaa, Erkki; Pouta, Eija & Hiedanpää, Juha (2021): Forest owners’ interest in participation and their compensation claims in voluntary landscape value trading: The case of wind power parks in Finland. Forest Policy and Economics 124:1.
Rapeli, Lauri & Koskimaa, Vesa (2021): Concerned and willing to pay? Comparing policymaker and citizen attitudes towards climate change. Environmental Politics.
Rapeli, Lauri; Bäck, Maria; Jäske, Maija & Koskimaa, Vesa (2021): When do you want it? Determinants of future-oriented political thinking. Frontiers in Political Science.
Setälä, Maija; Christensen, Henrik Serup; Leino, Mikko & Strandberg, Kim (2021): Beyond polarization and selective trust – a Citizens’ Jury as a trusted source of information. Politics.
Setälä, Maija; Christensen, Henrik Serup; Leino, Mikko; Strandberg, Kim; Bäck, Maria; Jäske, Maija (2020): Deliberative mini-publics facilitating voter knowledge and judgement: Experience from a Finnish local referendum. Representation.
Vogt; Henri & Pukarinen, Aappo (2022): The European Union as a long-term political actor: an overview. Political Research Exchange.
Jacobs, Alan & Matthews, J. Scott (2012): Why Do Citizens Discount the Future? Public Opinion and the Timing of Policy Consequences. British Journal of Political Science, 42:4.
PALO results in brief (pdf)
Further information about PALO’s results
Professor Maija Setälä, University of Turku, email: maiset(at)utu.fi