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How Future Thinkers Can Revolutionize Strategic Planning

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

Visiting the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship, Boston summed 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.

A number of important societal problems reach beyond the span of an election cycle, and for political leaders there can be “a temptation for inter-generational buck-passing,” Boston says. “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.”  

He is optimistic, though, noting that in the U.S., political leaders created the Social Security system and the Interstate Highway System—both of which, GAO says, provide benefits across generational boundaries.  

Boston says some future challenges may be unpredictable—such as non-state terrorism or new technologies—while others are known—like the potential effects of climate change or demographic shifts, which can affect health care, education, pensions, etc.

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, he says. 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?”

The Long View

There are some nascent efforts in the U.S., agency-level foresight initiatives including:

There is also a growing group of federal foresight advocates who are 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 horizon 10 to 20 years out—is used to inform short-term strategic efforts, such as the Defense, State and Homeland Security departments’ quadrennial reviews and domestic agencies’ four-year strategic planning cycles required under the Government Performance and Results Act.

In other countries there are more robust efforts to conduct governmentwide foresight and risk scans. Boston highlights several:

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

Supply and Demand

Boston says 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. “Addressing the demand side is more challenging than the supply side,” he says, making the following observations:

  • Creating a supply of foresight. “Foresight involves producing greater knowledge of possible futures,” Boston 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 to avoid being blindsided by future events. “One of the critical questions, in terms of institutional design, is how to build a close linkage between foresight processes and ongoing governmental policymaking,” he adds.

  • Creating a demand for foresight. It is easier for political leaders to focus on near-term challenges, Boston says. The trick, he notes, is to create an environment that makes the politics of long-term choices easier for elected leaders. There are three factors, he says: “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

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

The Finnish approach is based on five interrelated elements:

  • An investment in a strong network of nongovernmental futures-oriented organizations and foresight units in various government agencies.
  • Coordination of activities via the Government Foresight Network and the high-level Government Foresight Group.
  • A constitutional requirement 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 the 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 it encourages key actors to “reflect periodically on some of the major long-term challenges facing Finland and how they might be addressed.” It helps create a shared perspective, but not necessarily political consensus. 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,” he says.

Boston pragmatically notes, however, 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 the foresight process is largely separate from the day-to-day governmental policy and budget processes. Thus, Boston is uncertain whether such a process could or should be replicated elsewhere.

Potential Next Steps

Boston points to the Anticipatory Governance Project at the George Washington University, led by former White House staffer Leon Fuerth, as an example of what the U.S. might consider. 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 federal agencies.

Boston’s research has identified over a dozen types of solutions, including reforming budgetary systems, creating procedural rules that constrain policymakers, and strengthening foresight and strategic planning processes. He has also developed six approaches to change the “decision context” or “choice architecture” policymakers face, 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, Boston concludes his draft paper with the recognition that if 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.” He 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.

(Image via Brian A Jackson/

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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