As new technology, demographic shifts, natural disasters and pandemics lead to an increasingly uncertain future, government institutions must adapt.
In December 2019, a group of infectious disease experts at South Korea’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) tackled what was then a hypothetical scenario. In the scenario, a South Korean family contracts pneumonia after visiting China, where a new disease has begun to spread. After returning home, the family infects colleagues, family members and medical workers with the novel disease.
Just one month later, the testing and tracing protocols developed by the KCDC proved invaluable as the country grappled with a nearly identical scenario—the COVID-19 pandemic—and South Korea’s rapid and effective response garnered international praise.
These were government employees, not fortune tellers, but while the KCDC may not have had a crystal ball, they relied on something nearly as valuable: foresight, agility and resilience.
As outlined in our recent report, as new technology, demographic shifts, natural disasters and pandemics lead to an increasingly uncertain future, these three skills have become indispensable to government institutions.
Foresight, agility and resilience are similar but distinct. By mastering all three and deploying them synergistically, governments will be better prepared to weather most storms without the aid of clairvoyance.
By developing foresight, governments can anticipate future developments that might disrupt their operations—or enhance them, as in the case of improved data analysis technologies or Artificial Intelligence.
While the coronavirus pandemic is an example of a sudden paradigm shift, many of the changes that catch agencies by surprise are actually the result of broader trends. By keeping abreast of emerging trends and new technologies, a keen organization can find itself ahead of the curve rather than behind it.
The United Kingdom, for instance, has a program dedicated to evaluating emerging trends in technology, societal attitudes, resource supply and demand and demographics. This program helps the government to better understand the potential impact of these factors on policy making.
Of course, trend and horizon scanning cannot prepare governments for every high-impact “black or white swan” event such as the coronavirus pandemic, but—as the KCDC team demonstrated—scenarios can help make such events less of a surprise in the future.
Scenarios come in various forms, with each serving a different purpose. For their pandemic scenario, the KCDC engaged in a tabletop exercise, exploring different courses of action for a short-term scenario. This type of scenario can also be useful to prepare leadership teams, foster collaboration or stress-test a new plan before it is put into practice.
Classic scenario planning and strategy can be useful for those with an eye on the long game, looking five to 10 years into the future at a broad variety of possible situations, while wargaming allows officials to play out potential responses with real-time feedback.
Ultimately, no amount of foresight will benefit an agency that is unwilling to adapt. It is therefore imperative that organizations embrace uncertainty and develop a bias toward action, rather than freezing in the face of change.
By cultivating agility, the ability to identify, act and learn as circumstances change, governments can recognize a crisis when it arises and act quickly to deploy the strategies they have developed through foresight.
Agility is an asset both during a crisis and in day-to-day operations, but the skill must be developed at an organizational level. An agency wed to the status quo is simply incapable of engaging in the type of fast, flexible decision and policymaking necessary in moments of disruption.
Take for example India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, which adopted a series of “soft laws” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, allowing for medical providers to practice telemedicine. This swift regulatory action brought medical care directly into the homes of those in lockdown, while a less agile response might have forced them to forego routine care or risk spreading the virus to obtain it.
While agility enables an organization to nimbly respond to disruptions as they occur, resilience prepares it to withstand future disruptions.
Over time, the storm-battered state of Florida has invested significantly in natural disaster preparedness, offering homeowners free hurricane mitigation inspections, conducting regular disaster preparedness drills and adopting a storm-ready building code.
Essentially, resilience is the practice of laying the groundwork now for future disasters by learning from current ones.
This is evident in current efforts the United States and United Kingdom are making to bolster their cybersecurity. The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has created a one-stop shop offering dedicated cybersecurity products to support telework policies. The United Kingdom is nurturing talent with an online school that teaches vital cybersecurity skills. While the efforts were prompted by rapid digitization amid the coronavirus pandemic, improved cybersecurity practices will prove vital long term, as the digital sphere continues to widen.
Foresight, agility and resilience are distinct, but when employed in tandem can produce superior results.
South Korea’s CDC could not have known a global pandemic was on the horizon, but they had the foresight to consider what was possible, the agility to adapt when that hypothetical became a reality and the resilience to quickly bounce back once the outbreak was contained.
Bill Eggers is the executive director of Deloitte’s Center for Government Insights where he is responsible for the firm’s public sector thought leadership.