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Imagining Brexit: Why Government Should Develop And Publish Scenarios

10/07/2017 17:09 BST | Updated 10/07/2017 17:09 BST
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I used to be half of a two-person team in the UK Cabinet Office charged with developing scenarios. Scenarios are 'plausible futures', positive or negative. They are credible fictions of how things could turn out - albeit embroidered with clear assumptions and creative licence.

Scenarios have great power because they enable policy options, plans, draft legislation and the people and processes that deliver these to be tested to judge their fitness for purpose under a range of circumstances. Little used in the business and government world (outside corporate behemoths such as Shell), I have recently described for the first time the unique role that scenario-planning performed in the Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS) of the UK Cabinet Office.

In summary, there are three variants of scenario futures that can be used to develop, test or assure the utility of a policy or regulatory mechanism. Typically, these might be described as IDEAL, TOLERABLE and MUST AVOID.

What has been very striking amongst all of the ideological sloganeering and chatter around Brexit - and soundbites such as "no deal is better than a bad deal" - is that no-one inside or influential to government seems to have developed scenarios of, say, what a "no deal" situation would look and feel like for key demographics or industries. For all the talk of 'frictionless trade' - how would this be experienced by a haulier, retailer, manufacturer, ferry company... under a range of outcomes (WTO rules, good deal).

What would be the changes (ideally expressed as benefits in daily life) felt by Joyce (51 years old, widowed, living in South Shields, part-time shop worker, waiting for a hip operation, enthusiastic grandmother)? What about for Adil (46, small business-owner in food processing, employing three individuals in Ashford, Kent, a father of two small daughters).

How would easyJet, Nissan, JCB, Aston-Martin, XPO... experience changes in a range of post-Brexit outcomes - and how and when would these begin to emerge?

Scenarios are really useful tools to explore what could happen and what might be needed to dodge a 'MUST AVOID' charybdis or achieve early warnings of challenges which can be navigated around - as a pilot does turbulence. Of course, the process can also throw up the uncomfortable fact that some potential policy options are nothing of the sort.

Scenario-planning (forensically, objectively, ethically) applied reveals the unvarnished truth. This speaks truth to power and prevents 'groupthink' that can creep into any community. These facts explain the early and heartfelt adoption of such approaches by the intelligence agencies and special forces operators. Like them, politicians cannot afford to be blinded by optimism and hope over gritty reality.

Brexit is such an exponentially massive challenge, with no clear waymarked routes other than the EU's timetable, that scenario-planning is one of the very few ways that proponents could generate genuine policy options and that detractors could construct solid challenges to blind faith. Developed in fast, interactive sessions with industry players, regulators, consumers and others - scenarios should be being used exhaustively to structure detailed plans, explain and engage business and electoral audiences and raise the game of politicians in general.