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Justice, Fairness, Inclusion, and Performance.

What Is Strategic Foresight?

January 11, 2016


Does it make any sense for the government to think long term? We’ve done it before – think about the interstate highway system, the race to the Moon, or the evolution of the Internet.

Strategic foresight is not futuristic forecasting, nor is it the sole purview of Popular Science magazine, the World Future Society, or the Jetson Family. It is about having the imagination to be prepared for what may come, regardless of which scenario occurs – it’s a mindset, not a process.

The late leadership guru Robert Greenleaf said it is an ethical issue if leaders fail to “make the effort at an earlier time to foresee today’s events and take the right actions when there was freedom for initiative to act.”

Greenleaf’s statement is pretty strong. And most people would think that he refers to political leaders. But his observation is pointed at leaders at all levels. In fact, an article in the current issue of Harvard Business Review examines how successful companies survive and thrive in an increasingly complex world. The authors note that a key element is corporate leaders who “expect surprise but reduce uncertainty” by using strategic foresight.

Efforts to create strategic foresight capacity in the U.S. federal government have experienced fits and starts over the past 40 years. But in recent years, there has been some progress at the agency level, largely at the behest of political and career leaders who appreciate the value of foresight as part of their decision making processes. They might not think of it in terms of an ethical issue, but as good leadership.

What Is Foresight?

Foresight is not making a prediction about the future. Daniel Kim, a former colleague of Greenleaf,says: “foresight is about being able to perceive the significance and nature of events before they have occurred.” New Zealand professor Jonathan Boston, who is writing a book about strategic foresight systems in various countries, observes that leaders throughout history have undertaken efforts to look beyond the horizon by “consulting prophets, oracles, priestly castes, fortune tellers, and astrologers.” He notes that good long-term governance today should rely on other approaches to help leaders look ahead and reflect on ”the implications of current decisions, events, and trends” in order to make more informed policy choices today and their effects on tomorrow.

Different Approaches to Foresight

Is the use of foresight a personal leadership characteristic or should it be an institutional element in governance? There is a range of different approaches to creating an institutional foresight capacity; these include:

  • Embedded at the top of government. This has been proposed via the “anticipatory governance” research project led by Leon Fuerth at George Washington University, to be engaged directly with the White House and top agency leaders.
  • At an arm’s length from top leaders. This approach is seen as ensuring non-partisan, impartial advice, similar to what is being done by the Council on Virginia’s Future.
  • Located at the agency level as a staff unit. This approach is being used in many U.S. federal agencies, such as Veterans Affairs, FEMA, Coast Guard, and Postal Service.
  • Diffused via training into other management functions.This assumes foresight is an embedded discipline or a way of thinking by leaders, not as a separate staff function. This may be the ideal approach, but tends to be highly dependent on the culture of an organization.
  • External to government. For example, located in a university, non-profit, or foundation.

Each of these approaches has strengths and weaknesses in terms of their scope, impact, and relevance to leaders in decision making. For example, embedding such a function in the White House could make the use of foresight more prominent in decision-making, but it could also be seen as being manipulated by the political process and eliminated with a change in ruling party. In contrast, an independent function might be seen as impartial but it could also be treated as being irrelevant by policymakers.

The Current U.S. Approach to Strategic Foresight

The current U.S. approach seems to align with several of the latter approaches, where individual agencies are taking the lead, but are working together. Three years ago, foresight professionals from around the federal government began meeting informally to share among themselves their insights and methods.

Based on their initial meetings, it became clear that foresight methods are used in a range of federal agencies, but their uses are at different levels of maturity. The group now has about 150 participants representing about 30 federal agencies and it meets quarterly. It is in the process of developing a charter and governance system, with the intent of remaining informal for the time being. Some of the issues being addressed by this broader community include:

  • The development and use of a range of methodologies, frameworks, and tools
  • Helping explain to leaders the role of government in strategic foresight
  • Developing a common terminology among themselves.
  • Developing ways to engage decision-makers and policy-makers in foresight.
  • Understanding how they can organize and lead diffuse networks across agencies and policy arenas.

Creating a Supply and Demand for Foresight Efforts

Dr. Boston says that his research shows a need to develop foresight mechanisms that address both the supply and demand sides of the democratic process. The supply side is developing the analytic and delivery capability. The demand side is creating political incentives to act on the information developed. Boston observes: “Addressing the demand-side is more challenging than the supply-side.”

  • Creating a Supply of Foresight. Boston says: “foresight involves producing greater knowledge of possible futures.” He says this is not making predictions (knowledge of what will happen) but rather identifying possibilities, based on identifying important trends, emerging issues, and potential risks, with the hope that such information will influence policy decision-making so as to avoid being blind-sided by future events. He observes: “one of the critical questions, in terms of institutional design, is how to build a closes linkage between foresight processes and on-going governmental policy-making.”
  • Creating a Demand for Foresight. He says that it is relatively easier for political leaders to focus on near-term challenges. The trick, he notes, is to create an environment that makes the politics of long-term choices easier for elected leaders. He says there are three factors to doing so: “the degree of electoral safety they enjoy; the expected long-term social returns; and the institutional capacity at their disposal” to structure opportunities or trade-offs for those groups that might be disadvantaged in the near-term by any long-term policy decisions.

Dr. Boston’s research has identified over a dozen different types of solutions, such as reforming budgetary systems, creating procedural rules that constrain policy makers, strengthening foresight and strategic planning processes.

Interestingly, his research recognizes that, if our political leaders deep down don’t care, it won’t happen. He writes about the importance of nurturing a frame of mind that values “stewardship, guardianship, trusteeship and fiduciary duties.” And observes: “a crucial question is how to cultivate and foster the specific dispositions, virtues and values which underpin such a quest.” And that tone typically is set by a new president.

Additional Resources

Leon Fuerth and Evan Faber (2012) Anticipatory Governance: Practical Upgrades (George Washington University)

Jonathan Boston (2014) Governing for the Future (lecture notes at American University)

The Atlantic Council (2014) Strategic Foresight Initiative

The Dialog (2015) Database of Reports on Global Trends and Future Scenarios (The Dialog and the Inter-American Development Bank)