Gustavo Frazao/

Is Strategic Foresight an Ethical Imperative?

Leaders should consider the implications current decisions will have tomorrow.

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 he refers to political leaders. But his observation is pointed at leaders at all levels. Efforts to create strategic foresight capacity in the federal government have experienced fits and starts during 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.

A recent meeting at the National Academy of Public Administration examined the state of play in the development and use of foresight methods in the federal government and compared it to the approaches used by our neighbor to the North—Canada. There were real differences.

Foresight is not about 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” to make more informed policy choices today and on their effects tomorrow.

Different Approaches

Is the use of foresight a personal leadership characteristic, or should it be an institutional element of governance? There is a range of approaches that are appropriate for different cultural contexts, but there are trade-offs among each. These include:

  • Embedded at the top of government. This has been proposed via the “anticipatory governance” research project led by Leon Fuerth at the George Washington University, and involves being engaged directly with the White House and top agency leaders.

  • At arm’s length from top leaders. This approach is seen as ensuring nonpartisan, impartial advice, similar to what is being done by the Council on Virginia’s Future.

  • 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 it tends to be highly dependent on the culture of an organization.

  • External to government. For example, located at a university, nonprofit, or foundation.

Each of these approaches has strengths and weaknesses in terms of their scope, impact and relevance to leaders in decision-making. Embedding such a function at the White House, for example, 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 irrelevant by policymakers.

The current U.S. approach seems to align with several of the latter approaches, in which individual agencies are taking the lead, but are working together.

Community of Interest

Two years ago, foresight professionals from around the federal government began meeting informally to share their insights and methods. Based on their initial meetings, it became clear that foresight methods exist at a range of agencies, but their uses are at different levels of maturity. The group now has about 100 participants representing about 30 agencies, and it meets quarterly. It is 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
  • Developing ways to engage decision-makers and policymakers in foresight
  • Understanding how they can organize and lead diffuse networks across agencies and policy arenas

The Veterans Affairs Department is an example of how one large agency approaches strategic foresight. Then-secretary Eric Shinseki created the Office of Strategic Studies. It is small, with a staff of five, but it has positional authority because of the personal interest of the secretary and its placement in the Office of Policy and Planning.

The Office of Strategic Studies contributes to the development of the department’s Quadrennial Review and strategic plan. For example, the staff went into the field offices to conduct scenario planning and environmental scanning exercises, and conducted similar exercises at the leadership level in headquarters. Their impact has been along two dimensions: fiscal (e.g., ensuring the attention of policymakers regarding the location of hospitals in the VA network and qualitative (e.g., helping to develop an understanding of the narrative of public support for veterans in the future—when there may be far fewer veterans in the population).

The Canadian Approach

The Canadian government has taken a different approach, creating a separate agency to serve as a champion for the development and use of foresight capabilities. Policy Horizons Canada was created in early 2011 to provide strategic foresight capacity in Canada’s federal departments and agencies. The cadre of career deputy ministers wanted a broader context for their agencies’ strategic plans, which typically are three- to four-year projections of past trends—not “strategic foresight.”

The agency has a steering committee composed of the Clerk of the Privy Council (equivalent to the head of the Office of Management and Budget in the U.S.) and nine deputy ministers (equivalent to deputy secretaries in the U.S., but they are career instead of political appointees). The agency has a staff of 25 with a budget of $3.5 million. They provide more of an arm’s length analysis of trends than agencies typically have the scope or capability to produce on their own. They see their role as focusing on the drivers of change, rather than trends.

They try to identify the underlying assumptions being made by agencies and surface them before the unidentified assumptions create problems. They do this by using several techniques:

Their goal is not to create foresight shops in each of the agencies, but rather to integrate the use of foresight into the tool kits of existing agency analysts. They sponsored training, but found the best approach was to detail agency analysts to Policy Horizons Canada to work on a project for several months, use a series of foresight tools to do their work, and then send them back. This creates an ever-expanding network of people who have a different analytic “lens” on the world.

The participants believe their work has influenced policymakers. For example, Policy Horizons recently conducted a metascan on the role of emerging technology in changing the nature of work. Various government agencies are now rethinking their approaches to social policy.

Helping Leaders Lead

Elected political leaders sometimes like to believe they already have the vision and foresight—that’s why they were elected. Based on the Canadian experience, however, career civil servants want to help. They find value in a more systematic, professionalized approach using institutional mechanisms and processes that allow them to provide useful advice to policymakers. In the U.S. and other countries, the effective use of foresight all too often is dependent on having a personality in a leadership position who is a champion of a foresight process and the insights it produces.

Do we wait for top leadership interest, or should agency leaders at all levels take on the responsibility of incorporating foresight into their decision-making? Greenleaf would say the latter, as an ethical responsibility of being a leader—and helping leaders lead. The Federal Foresight network suggests that the latter approach seems to be evolving. But maybe the Canadian approach might serve as an inspiration.

(Image via Gustavo Frazao/