Stephen Webster

Taking the Long View

For many agencies, it’s a good idea to look beyond the next three or four years.

Does it make any sense for the government to think long term? NASA developed a 200-year strategic plan, at one point. The space agency engaged futurists and science fiction writers to help develop a strategy for interplanetary exploration. Maybe it makes sense for NASA, but what about other agencies?

Strategic foresight is not futurist 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 mind-set, not a process.

Creating a Federal Community

A fledgling group of strategic foresight advocates from a range of federal agencies gathered in late March to share with each other how their organizations were looking beyond the next three to four years, which is the time frame required by law for traditional strategic plans. In fact, many were looking out as far as 20 to 25 years. They were not trying to predict the future so much as to understand the implications of various scenarios their agencies might reasonably face over a long time.

For some agencies, including the Veterans Affairs Department, looking further down the road makes obvious sense. VA’s strategic foresight lead, James-Christian Blockwood, says department officials can readily anticipate the services an aging veteran population will demand. They can chart the evolution of medical technology, and how services can be delivered. For instance, they can look at long-distance telemedicine versus in- hospital care. This can help them ensure they have the right mix of health and benefit services for their populations when the time comes. And in some cases, making changes now could preclude an undesirable future scenario. Take diabetes treatment: Better preventive care today could reduce the need for dialysis later.

The military has a long tradition of developing future scenarios for global challenges and the response capabilities the United States needs. This is especially important when the lead time for developing new ships, submarines and aircraft can be a decade or more. The services’ more mature foresight methods might provide useful insights for civilian agencies that are just starting such efforts.

Pioneering Agencies

Some agencies are coordinating interesting initiatives, which were presented at the March forum:

Coast Guard, Office of Strategic Analysis. The Coast Guard began its foresight efforts in 1998. Its most recent effort, called Project Evergreen, relies on “alternative futures” scenario-planning and is “designed to deal with ambiguity.” The Coast Guard identified scores of drivers and trends that would affect its mission and distilled them into five “worlds” or scenarios to determine what capabilities it would need in years to come. The intent was to encourage leaders to stop thinking incrementally and start thinking exponentially. This approach is being institutionalized among all Coast Guard flag officers; for them, foresight is not seen as a process so much as a way of thinking.

Marine Corps, Strategic Visioning Group. The Marines historically have been comfortable with looking 10 years out and linking their efforts to the Defensewide Quadrennial Review and joint operations with sister military services. This group, however, has been pushing the vision even further into the future by identifying a range of world-view scenarios. In the past, as in any large organization, there was an “overwhelming desire for a product for a product’s sake,” officials say. A recent reorganization, however, has integrated the Marines’ efforts to develop a strategic vision into a new directorate that spans the near-term Warfighters Lab and long-term assessment initiatives, and raised its visibility with a flag officer at the helm.

Air Force, Future Concepts and Transformation Division. The Air Force has regularly developed 20-year strategic outlooks, with its most recent effort extending out to 2030. Its environmental assessments integrate technology; intelligence; environmental resources; and demographic, economic and political perspectives into a series of megatrends used to develop the Air Force’s strategic plan.

Veterans Affairs Department, Strategic Studies Group. Formed in 2011, this group leads VA’s forward-leaning “environmental scanning” efforts and helps identify long-term, cross-cutting challenges and opportunities for the department. Its 10- to 15-year assessments of strategic drivers and identification of alternative “future worlds” for veterans helps create the context for the department’s quadrennial strategic planning process.

Other agencies also have foresight efforts under way, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons, the Homeland Security Department, and the cross-agency Federal Health Futures Group. Even the Government Accountability Office develops future scenarios, which focus on the fiscal health of the federal, state and local sectors.

Next Steps

Creating a cross-agency community of strategic foresight experts is not a new idea. An early effort in 2001 faded, but there is a renewed interest. In an October 2012 report, “Anticipatory Governance,” The George Washington University’s Leon Fuerth offered an action agenda for equipping the executive branch to “cope with increasing speed and complexity of major challenges.”

VA’s Blockwood, who helped set up the foresight forum, sums up his insights this way:

It is important to show the value of the foresight process (not just its products) to policymakers, including conveying the risks and costs of not doing it.

With the level of change today, we need to invest in more rigorous analyses of possible futures so we are prepared to “bend the future” instead of just reacting to events.

There is a need to share and create a network of foresight capabilities across government agencies, to learn from best practices and speed results—both formally and informally.

Are foresight initiatives unusual? Not really. In fact some states have such initiatives, including the Council on Virginia’s Future. Other countries have created governmentwide  agencies that focus on foresight—like Policy Horizons Canada. According to a 2011 study by Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, the most sophisticated approach has been developed by Singapore, which involves all of its senior leaders in foresight initiatives.

Given all the attention on the short-term effects of budget cuts, maybe it’s time to take a longer view.

John M. Kamensky is a senior research fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously was deputy director of Vice President Gore’s National Partnership for Reinventing Government.

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