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Federal Foresight Community of Interest Turns Five

An intrepid band of analysts from across the federal government is working hard to identify the long-term challenges that should concern today’s decision makers.

Pop quiz: When planning for the future, which federal agency’s strategic plan has the longest timeframe?

Answer: The U.S. Forest Service. The agency looks ahead 100 to 150 years—it takes a long time to grow a forest.

An intrepid band of foresight analysts from across the federal government met recently to continue their regular round of sharing insights and practices. The group quietly celebrated their fifth year of informal gatherings, and the band of volunteers who organize the meetings announced the creation of a community website.

Five years ago, the group began to meet after recognizing a common need to share and create a network of foresight capabilities across government to learn from best practices and to speed results, both formally and informally. Since then, there has been steady, quiet progress.

What Federal Foresight Looks Like  

Community members with  the Environmental Protection Agency—Joseph Greenblott, Thomas O’Farrell, Robert Olson, and Beth Burchard—shared survey findings from a recently published study they co-authored that describes the status of the maturity and institutional arrangements federal agencies have in place to conduct strategic foresight. Some interesting takeaways:

  • “Most of the organizations consulted have only a few people conducting foresight studies, and the most effective foresight organizations tend to be located close to the top but not directly involved in day-to-day decision making.” The authors found greater support for the use of foresight in defense and intelligence agencies. The most prominent of these is probably the Department of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment.  
  • In a scan of different foresight methods used by federal agencies, they found: “The most commonly used foresight technique is horizon scanning, which often serves as the foundation for other foresight exercises, such as implications wheels, scenario planning, and trend analysis.”

The Value of Strategic Foresight

Greenblott and colleagues write that “Strategic foresight is a planning tool to develop the critical thinking, planning, and management competencies for considering the impact of long-term uncertainties on near-term decision making.” They further note that foresight is not about predicting the future so much as it is identifying plausible alternative futures.

In fact, 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.” After all, foresight is about being able to perceive the significance and nature of events before they have occurred, and having the imagination to be prepared for what may come, regardless of which scenario occurs—it’s a mindset, not a process.

In federal agencies, the use of foresight reframed how agencies approached their strategic planning. The Coast Guard, for example, undertook an increased emphasis on preparing for Arctic missions in 2005 when its foresight efforts suggested that climate changes would lead to the melting of the icecap and new competition for newly-opened water passages. And in the Veterans Affairs Department, foresight efforts are the foundation for building VA’s quadrennial strategic plan, inform the development of strategic objectives, and help identify more than a quarter of the department’s enterprise risks that need to be addressed.

A 2016 white paper by the National Academy of Public Administration endorses the value of strategic foresight and recommends institutionalizing the development and use of foresight in federal decision making by creating capacity at the White House, the cross-agency level, and within each major agency.

Next Steps

The research study by Greenblott and his colleagues concludes that foresight has taken root in government but cautions that it has not yet been institutionalized. The authors note that agencies are in different places along the maturity scale. However, this steady evolution of foresight capacity within agencies fits into a broader context of piecemeal efforts to improve agencies’ decision-making support capabilities. For example, there other capabilities have been added and institutionalized. The Office of Management and Budget advocates the use of enterprise risk management, and Congress has passed legislation strengthening the use of strategic planning, and  the use of data, evidence and evaluation. The key, though, will be to embed it into existing ongoing decision-making processes such as agencies’ annual strategic reviews of progress with the Office of Management and Budget.