Magnifying the Voice of the Future

Can leaders in a democracy think beyond the next election? This is a key question posed by a New Zealand academic, Jonathan Boston, who is studying how different countries attempt to address long-term risks to society, the environment, and fiscal sustainability.

Dr. Boston, visiting the U.S. on a Fulbright Scholarship, sums up some of his initial research on how the U.S. and several other democratic countries address long-term policy issues, in a recent presentation at American University.

Background. Dr. Boston says that there are a number of important societal problems that reach beyond the span of an election cycle, and that for political leaders there can be “a temptation for intergenerational buck-passing. Such temptations will be all the greater when the short-term costs are direct, specific, certain, tangible and visible while the long-term benefits are more generalized, less certain and more intangible.”  Magnifying Glass and person via Master isolated

He is optimistic, though. He notes that in the U.S., for example, political leaders in the past created the Social Security system and the interstate highway system, both of which, GAO says, provide benefits across generational boundaries.

Boston says that while some future challenges may be unpredictable – such as non-state terrorism or new technologies – others are more known, such as the potential effects of climate change or demographic shifts (which can affect healthcare, education, pensions, etc.).

He says that some academics, foundations, and governments around the world have developed future scenarios in selected policy domains, such as fiscal and environmental sustainability, demographics, national security, and the role of technology. But this tends to be episodic, and not well-connected with short-term decision making in democratic governments. His research, therefore, focuses on how do we “magnify the voice of the future”?

Long-Term Efforts in the U.S. Are Episodic. There are some nascent efforts in the US, for example, agency-level foresight initiatives such as:

• The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s strategic foresight initiative
• The US Coast Guard’s Project Evergreen initiative
• The US Postal Service’s emerging trends project.

There is also a growing group of federal foresight advocates that are self-organizing a cross-agency professional network to share best practices. Now in its second year, it has about 100 members from across various federal agencies. The work of these professionals – who scan the horizons out 10 to 20 years – is used to inform shorter-term strategic efforts such as the Defense, State, and Homeland Quadrennial Reviews and domestic agencies’ four-year strategic planning cycles required under the Government Performance and Results Act.

Efforts More Advanced in Other Countries. In other countries, there are more robust efforts to conduct governmentwide foresight and risk scans than in the US. Dr. Boston highlights several, including:
• Canada, which has a separate government agency that conducts such analyses: Policy Horizons Canada.
• Australia and New Zealand, who have formed a Joint Agencies Scanning Network. Australia has also sponsored research on the future via its Parliament in 2001 as well as continuing efforts via non-profit groups, such as the Australian Futures Project.
• The United Kingdom, which has conducted a Cross-Government Horizon Scanning effort and sponsored a series of future-thinking workshops.

There are also global non-profit foresight resources such as Global Foresight Communities and the Public Sector Foresight Network.

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.

Finland’s Approach to Strategic Foresight. Boston is studying how different countries are creating both a supply and demand for foresight and risk analyses. He finds: “Over the past few decades Finland has developed a unique institutional framework for incentivizing thinking about the future.” . . a small country of 5 million on the margins of Europe, it has developed “a deliberate and concerted effort by policymakers to prepare for surprises.”

He says the Finnish approach is based on five inter-related elements:
• An investment in a strong network of non-governmental futures-oriented organizations and foresight units in various government agencies.
• Coordination of activities via a Government Foresight Network and a high-level Government Foresight Group.
• A constitutional requirement dating from the 1990s requiring the Finnish parliament to produce a quadrennial report on the future direction of the nation.
• Sponsorship of a wide-ranging and transparent national foresight process, used to develop the quadrennial report.
• Creation of a parliamentary Committee for the Future, which investigates long-term policy issues and reviews the government’s report.

Boston says these five elements sit on top of the regular governmental budget, strategic planning, and performance management processes.

The Finnish model focuses more on creating a supply than a demand for foresight. Boston says the value of the Finnish approach is that it encourages key actors in Finnish society to “reflect periodically on some of the major long-term challenges facing Finland and how they might be addressed.” And, he says, it helps create a shared perspective, but not necessarily political consensus. He also says that such a process can “help blunt opposition to hard choices, temper the level of party competition and reduce the electoral risk associated with such choices.”

However, Boston pragmatically notes that the latest Finnish parliamentary report “is relatively bland, generalized and predictable” with “no analysis for alternative scenarios . . . and is devoid of explicit long-term policy targets.” He also says that the foresight process is largely separate from the day-to-day governmental policy and budget processes. Thus, he tentatively concludes that he is uncertain if such as process could or should be replicated elsewhere.

Potential Next Steps. Boston points to the Anticipatory Governance Project at George Washington University, led by former White House staffer Leon Fuerth, as an example of what the US might do. Fuerth’s 2012 proposal describes how a strategic foresight system could be embedded in the federal government to make the existing approach more organized, professional, and connected to the near-term agendas of policymakers. It includes the creation of a small foresight unit in the White House, a Presidential Advisory Council for Foresight, and a virtual organization that brings together the existing foresight activities across different federal agencies.

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. He has also developed six different approaches to change “some aspect of the decision context or choice architecture facing policy actors,” such as insulating decision-makers from short-term political pressures (e.g., by using independent commissions) and changing the constraints under which decisions are made (e.g., new budget rules).

Interestingly, he concludes his draft paper with a recognition 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 just depends on the kind of leaders we choose to elect.

IBM Center for The Business of Government

Graphic Credit: Courtesy of Master isolated via FreeDigitalPhotos

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Profile Photo Corinne Stubbs

Nice post, John. I enjoyed Dr. Boston’s advice on looking at other countries for their strategies toward successful government foresight initiatives. By following the examples of others, the U.S. can implement better foresight efforts and avoid repeating any unsuccessful strategies.