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Anticipatory Governance: 3 Ways We’ll Govern in the 21st Century

Image via Alexei Tacu/



Former Vice Presidential National Security Advisor Leon Fuerth, working with Evan Faber, has released a white paper that has been a decade in the making. The paper describes how the federal government is increasingly facing challenges of greater complexity that demand faster action than the current institutional structures can respond to effectively.

The paper observes that challenges today “involve concurrent interactions among events across multiple dimensions of governance; they have no regard for our customary jurisdictional and bureaucratic boundaries; they cannot be broken apart and solved pieces by piece; and rather than stabilizing into permanent solutions, they morph into new problems that have to be continually managed.”

So what’s the solution?

The paper offers three sets of interrelated solutions termed “Anticipatory Governance.” Fuerth defines Anticipatory Governance as: “a ‘system of systems’ comprising a disciplined foresight-policy linkage; networked management and budgeting to mission; and feedback systems to monitor and adjust.” The discrete solutions offered in the paper were developed via a series of workshops sponsored by the National Defense University and a project Fuerth leads at George Washington University, called the “Project on Forward Engagement,” since 2001. The criteria for the selection of these solutions was that they had to be pragmatic and possible (but not necessarily easy) to implement. Each solution includes a range of options for how it might be implemented. The solution areas are:

Solution 1: Systematically Integrate Foresight and Policy Development. Unlike some other countries, the U.S. does not have an institutional mechanism or office at the top of government to systematically scan the horizon or systematically generate alternative future scenarios. The military, the international affairs community, and homeland security each have offices to do this for their respective domains, but there isn’t something like this for the federal government as a whole.

The paper observes: “The acceleration of today’s events has the effect of compressing the time that policymakers have to respond, and government processes that are designed to be deliberate are challenged when the rest of the world is speeding up.” They suggest that if such a process were in place, events like Katrina, the 2008 financial crisis, and the anticipation of the Arab Spring might not have been as stark.

The paper recommends options around:

  • Organizing a foresight system that has access to the top of government but is detached from day-to-day crises
  • Creating brokering arrangements between foresight and policy development
  • Incentivizing the use of foresight when developing policy
  • Training professionals to incorporate foresight and collaborative skills into their professional development.

Solution 2: Use Networks to Organize and Manage Complex Issues. Policy issues today do not respect traditional organizational boundaries inherent in large bureaucracies. Network theory offers an alternative way to organize governance, says Fuerth. This is reinforced by a wide range of both national security and domestic policy observers. The paper recommends “management to mission” rather than the traditional “management by jurisdiction.” The challenge is to approach this in a way that respects current accountability and resource allocation institutions, and is seen as legitimate by stakeholders in a democratic system, in a strategic way.

The paper recommends options around:

  • Networking the strategy and policy planning offices across agencies to provide a “whole picture” view of major issues
  • Leveraging the processes of existing deputies’ and interagency policy committees to focus on strategy, not day-to-day operations
  • Engaging the Cabinet to strategically coordinate planning and execution
  • Networking integrators for cross-agency missions, as envisioned in recent law.
  • Budgeting for strategic impact by integrating OMB and policy council decision-making systems
  • Synchronizing national strategy reports so they interrelate
  • Systematizing strategic priorities, such as through a framework of National Strategies that are reviewed regularly
  • Reformatting the dialogue with Congress by communicating at a strategic level rather than the traditional disaggregated program or agency levels.

Solution 3: Constantly Monitor and Respond to Policies During Implementation. Feedback systems exist throughout the government, but according to the paper, this is not done systematically at the top of the government. Feedback is necessary to monitor and adjust policies; to provide accountability and control; and to learn what works and what doesn’t. The ideal is to monitor actual events in close-to-real time to alert policymakers to potential consequences of these actions.

The paper recommends options around:

  • Ensuring presidential decision papers include a set of elements that will make it possible to track policy execution to determine its effectiveness.
  • Establishing an institutional venue for feedback on policy implementation. The paper notes that there is no COO at the White House other than the Chief of Staff to follow through on decisions made by the president.
  • Continuously sharing of specific performance indicators among senior officials to provide early warning signals if circumstances are deteriorating.
  • Diagnostic reviews of major policies to routinely check for signs of policy deterioration, possibly similar to data-driven reviews currently operated by some of the major departments.

Are these solutions too idealistic to consider? Interestingly, other countries have already begun to grapple with the need to build in some capacity for foresight, address issues of complexity, and develop ways to manage using large scale networks and open systems. So this is not an academic notion. Also, the U.S. federal government isn’t starting from scratch, either. It has begun using national strategies as a way of organizing around large-scale challenges, and it is seriously discussing ways to introduce portfolio budgeting techniques to make trade-offs among priorities and regular reviews of some cross-agency priorities.

Note: This is the second in a series of blog posts about potential government reforms recently proposed by various think tanks or other organizations.

(Image via Alexei Tacu/

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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