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Justice, Fairness, Inclusion, and Performance.

The Long Road to Strategic Foresight in the Federal Government

August 26, 2016


Governments around the world are faced with existing and evolving challenges that require thoughtful, flexible and innovative approaches to address them. We must safeguard our Nation’s future and there is a significant threat to not deliberately and systematically considering the long-term consequences and alternative options regarding policy decisions. To advance Strategic Foresight from its ebb and flow of fleeting popularity, and capitalize on its proven usefulness, government leaders must understand, advocate, and institutionalize it as part of everyday decision-making.

No single, widely-accepted definition

Strategic Foresight first and foremost is a tool. There is no single, agreed upon definition among practitioners, but Amy Zalman in, Strategic Foresight is a Measurable Activity, offers one interpretation defining it as a set of techniques and processes designed to help managers orient policies and actions toward the future.

Strategic Foresight allows for individuals and organizations to be more proactive, creative and strategic.

There are several principles that should be consistent with any definition:

  • Considers a range of alternatives
  • Underscores relevance of interaction between emerging concepts and trends
  • Orients toward long-term implications
  • Addresses complex challenges and opportunities
  • Deals with unknowns and uncertainty
  • Encourages innovation and allows for abstract thinking without constraint
  • Uses qualitative and quantitative methodologies

There is much more consistent agreement on what Strategic Foresight is not. Strategic Foresight is not prediction or the singular answer to a problem. Well known techniques or components commonly associated with Strategic Foresight include: scenarios, war gaming, environmental scanning, backcasting and cross-impact analysis and the Monte Carlo and Delphi methods.

Strategic Foresight not a new concept

As described by Ken Hunter, leaders across government—in both the executive and legislative branch—have seen value in promoting Strategic Foresight in the 1960s and 1970s and made admirable attempts to incorporate it in the decision-making process.

Examples of past Legislative Branch calls for Foresight include:

  • In 1974, House Rule X regarding Organization of Committees and more specifically General Oversight Responsibilities , called for standing committees to review and study on a continuous basis future research and forecasting in order to assist with analysis, appraisal and evaluation.
  • In 1976, informal meetings of U.S. representatives and occasional invitation of guest speakers led to the creation of the Congressional Clearing House on the Future, alerting members to the policy implications of emerging trends and develop legislative initiatives to address long-range issues.
  • In 1985, then-Representative Albert Gore introduced legislation, H.R. 3070 Critical Trends Assessment Act, to establish an Office of Critical Trends Analysis, which would have identified critical trends and alternative futures for the next 20 years and provided an evaluation of the effects of Government policies on those trends.

More recent examples of Executive Branch Strategic Foresight efforts include:

  • In 2005, a cross-agency initiative, Project Horizon, was a Department of State-led initiative that convened leaders in foreign policy and national security to explore ways to improve U.S. Government interagency coordination in global affairs. The Project used scenario-based planning over a 20-year horizon, as described by Sid Kaplan in Effective Strategic Foresight is Rooted in Cross-Agency Collaboration.
  • In 2012, Leon Fuerth’s Anticipatory Governance representing the views of a range of academics, former senior government officials and luminaries provided a blueprint for how the government could address increasing speed and complexity of major challenges and “win the future” by adapting existing U.S. government systems and process.
  • In 2013, the Federal Foresight Community of Interest launched as an organic, informal network of Federal Agencies with a desire to work collaboratively on Foresight issues. The Community focuses on exchanging tools, training and training for foresight professionals and sharing knowledge on emerging and cross-cutting issues.

Other countries value use of Strategic Foresight

Countries are incorporating Foresight, using vastly different approaches, structures, and levels of formality. The United Kingdom, Finland, Canada, and Singapore are a few leading the charge and have incentivized foresight among their public sector professionals.

Examples of institutional capabilities in other countries include:

  • UK Minister for Government Policy oversees the Cabinet Office’s Horizon Scanning Programme Team that coordinates scanning work across departments and leverages experts in and outside government to challenge thinking.
  • Finnish Prime Minister Office’s Government Foresight Group is responsible for leading and coordinating national efforts and supports the country’s national foresight network of public and private actors.
  • Policy Horizons Canada is a foresight and knowledge organization within the federal public service and has a mandate to help anticipate emerging policy challenges and opportunities.
  • Singapore Prime Minster Office’s Strategy Group and Centre for Strategic Futures aims to help navigate emerging strategic challenges and opportunities, and build a public service able manage a complex and fast-changing environment.

While organizational models vary—centralized, decentralized, distributed, networked or external—governments around the globe are actively engaging and encouraging the adoption, integration and application of Strategic Foresight. Jonathan Boston, Professor of Public Policy at Victoria University of Wellington in Governing for the Future suggests improving strategic foresight must be embedded within the political system and coupled with day-to-day policymaking.

Strategic Foresight needs a strong voice and a commitment to action

As noted by Steven Redburn and Jonathan Breul in Linking Foresight to Decision Making, government needs a system to assess large-scale trends to inform policy recommendations. The President and Agency leaders have a responsibility to ensure the effective and efficient use of resources and that the country benefits from the best decision-making possible. The Government Performance Results and Modernization Act (GPRAMA) of 2010 enhances performance planning, management, and reporting. GPRAMA is a good start to enhancing decision-making by mandating multi-year strategic plans with long-term objectives as well as requiring Agencies to measure and report progress towards achieving stated objectives.

Next steps

At least one problem for the next wave of government leaders is that they – like their predecessors -- often tend to believe they already know solutions to issues and focus on resolving them with little regard to the process that helps them make consequential decisions. There are many barriers including structural, resources, and culture that prevent swift creation of an institutional Strategic Foresight capability in government; however, to aid in the call for foresight in government future government leaders should consider the following broad steps:

Encourage Leadership

  • Designate a champion for foresight -- a single organizational or individual lead to establish the capability
  • Ensure personal understanding and buy-in for Strategic Foresight by senior leaders and mid-level managers
  • Secure senior leader buy-in early and throughout to consistently articulate the value of Strategic Foresight

Build Capacity

  • Leverage the knowledge of existing formal and informal resources and networks
  • Develop best practices based on Strategic Foresight efforts over the past four decades

Institutionalize Processes

  • Work with all branches and instruments of government to coordinate a holistic approach, such as integrating planning, policy, budget, risk, and evaluation
  • Work with oversight bodies to ensure effective implementation
  • Track and measure outcomes

NAPA Panel Recommendations.

In order to pervasively advance the application of Strategic Foresight across government a recommended next step for future senior leaders is to create a formal, institutional capability within government. The NAPA Strategic Foresight panel has developed specific recommendations on steps to take in that direction:

  • During the transition, charter a stress-test task force to begin identifying key future challenges
  • Integrate foresight into government-wide policy development, at the White House level
  • Use existing foresight networks to support agency-level decision-making for management and implementation

Details on the Foresight Panel’s recommended actions can be found here.