Sharing Foresight Knowledge and Experience

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A Report on the 2016 Meeting of the Public Sector Foresight Network and the Federal Foresight Community of Interest

Interest in how government looks at the future is undergoing a renaissance in governments around the world, and the role of networks in facilitating the exchange of information is critical. The integration of networks is particularly important in order to leverage knowledge.

Two government foresight networks were formed in recent years in response to growing interest in developing a critical mass of those working in government on foresight in the U.S. and around the world. In 2011, futurist Dr. Clem Bezold of the Institute for Alternative Futures (IAF) and Nancy Donovan of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) convened a government foresight breakfast in Vancouver, Canada, which has since evolved into annual day-long meetings and the creation of an international Public Sector Foresight Network (PSFN) open to those in and working with government on foresight issues. In 2013, James-Christian Blockwood, then with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), organized the Federal Foresight Community of Interest (FFCoI), which has since conducted quarterly meetings drawing officials from over 50 U.S. federal agencies. Both networks decided to combine forces to organize a joint meeting in 2016 in order to facilitate the exchange of diverse views and best practices by U.S. and international foresight officials.

On July 22, these two government foresight networks met for a groundbreaking joint meeting in Washington, D.C., to share knowledge on best practices in identifying emerging trends and to discuss issues such as how foresight can be incorporated into decision making. With close to 100 registered, members of the international PSFN and the U.S. FFCoI discussed issues on how emerging trends can be incorporated into government planning and policies. Countries represented included Canada, China, Korea, Singapore, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States, including attendees from over 25 U.S. federal agencies.

Held at the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, the July 22 meeting opened with remarks by Bezold and Donovan speaking for PSFN, along with Jason Stiles of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and Joe Moore from VA on behalf of the FFCoI.

The first speaker, John Basso from the VA, outlined what turned out to be the overriding message of the day: that, to be effective, foresight practitioners must understand the goals and values of government and business leaders and be prepared to couch their proposals in terms those leaders could relate to and understand. Using examples from government agencies whose attempts at foresight produced differing results, Basso demonstrated how sustaining foresight is only possible when deep scanning is not simply performed by outside “experts” who come in, write up their report, and leave again, but when the importance of foresight is embraced by management and its value is demonstrated to staff throughout an entire organization so that it becomes an integral part of ongoing operations.

Stephen Sanford of GAO followed up by pointing out key attributes of successful foresight programs. These included:

  • convincing stakeholders at all levels, from funders and administrators to department staff and those they serve—the general public—that foresight is not a fad but a fundamental element in effective policy;
  • developing persuasive narratives based on existing institutional goals and values to indicate how foresight can enhance outcomes;
  • busting silos and engaging all levels of staff by forming hybrid teams to develop and integrate design strategies; and
  • rapidly prototyping so as to make results visible to stakeholders within a reasonable time.

Joe Greenblott of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) then described how a one-year strategic foresight pilot project conducted by his agency built upon lessons learned from past foresight projects by directly involving representatives from across EPA, engaging agency experts and managers throughout the project, and focusing on emerging challenges and opportunities for which actionable recommendations could be developed. Noting that OMB Curricular A-11 (Preparation, Submission, and Execution of the Budget) now encourages agencies to integrate strategic foresight into the strategic planning and review process, Greenblott went on to describe how his agency first set up an 18-member “Lookout Panel” to assure broad agency involvement in the foresight process, with panel members committing up to 10 percent of their time to participate in the project. Over the course of the pilot, the panel members participated in training on strategic foresight methods, scanned media for evidence of emerging issues likely to impact EPA operations, held strategic discussions with thought leaders within and outside of EPA, and communicated their findings to leadership.

Peter Padbury of Policy Horizons Canada, a foresight center in the Canadian government, spoke about emerging challenges in his country in the 2015-2030 time frame and the progress of foresight efforts currently under way to assess these. Policy Horizons serves the senior management community by identifying emerging issues and policy challenges that could impact the country in the 10- to 15-year time frame. Most of Policy Horizons’ studies explore Canadian issues in a global context. He emphasized the value of surfacing and working directly with the mental models held by the various stakeholders as a tool to understand the system and how it could evolve under different conditions. Where possible it is particularly useful to understand the mental models of key decision makers as they are more likely to pay attention to the study to see what you have done with their model. Also, instead of merely warning of perceived dangers, Padbury stressed the value of presenting upcoming policy challenges in terms of the new opportunities they might present. He also emphasized that surfacing and testing the core assumptions buried in new policy proposals is a very useful exercise that can provide a context for new policy development.

Padbury outlined some of the early findings from an ongoing study on the emerging economy. A number of new technologies (including AI, data analytics, sensors, robotics, the Internet of Things, blockchain, synthetic biology, etc.) are the infrastructure for a new digital global economy that will dramatically change the nature of manufacturing, services, and natural resources exploitation. It will likely enable the rise of virtual corporations (platforms) that use all-digital value chains to connect virtual workers, AI, and other resources on an as-needed basis to deliver customized goods and services to people anywhere in the world. There are many potential surprises. For example, a number of goods and services will be much cheaper or nearly free, he said. This could lead to an era where “consumer welfare” is increasing in some desirable ways, but we confront a long period of deflation during the transition years. The emergence of this global digital economy, he asserted, may radically alter the traditional roles of government institutions at every level, making some traditional instruments (such as taxation, trade barriers, and employment standards) largely ineffective.

The next three speakers, Ibon Zugasti from Prospektiker, the foresight unit of the Basque worker-owned conglomerate Mondragon, and M. Gotzone Sagardui and Juan Ibarreche from the employment agency of the government in the Basque region of Spain, reported on a study of employment scenarios to 2030 adapted to the Basque region from the Millennium Project's 2050 Work &Technology Study. For the Basque region, forecasts were developed for 2030. These forecasts identified disruptions but saw lower worker displacement for the region than did the Millennium Project study, as well as a different pattern of technologies that would displace jobs. Sagardui noted that the 2030 study reinforced Basque employment and guaranteed-income policy. She presented the consistent successes achieved over the past 25 years by programs tailored to the specific needs of citizens in their local region to reduce poverty and unemployment to levels far below those of Spain as a whole or even the average levels of the entire EU. With some 2.1 million native inhabitants, the Basque region occupies a mountainous area on the border between northern Spain and southern France and includes the important port and manufacturing center of Bilbao. Beginning with surveys and in-depth interviews, Basque officials identified the principal desires of their citizens, and instituted long-term programs of employment and income support that reduced unemployment levels from 16 percent in 1984 to 5.9 percent in 2014. While overall poverty levels in Spain as a whole remain around 9 percent, in the Basque region they are only about 3 percent, having the same Gini index of income equality as Sweden. Acknowledging the advantages of a relatively small but culturally coherent area like the Basque region, these speakers argued that establishing carefully selected and widely supported goals based on research techniques and using modified assumptions reflecting conditions specific to their own region have been largely responsible for the successes achieved.

James-Christian Blockwood of GAO, appearing in his role as a member of the National Academy of Public Administration’s Panel on Strategic Foresight, spoke about the special challenge of preparing foresight recommendations for presidential transition teams. The panel’s three recommendations are, first, to set up a task force on current problems with long-range implications that will be prepared to recommend policies appropriate for beginning to address these within the first 100 days of the new administration; second, to better integrate foresight into government agencies at all levels; and third, to assure that existing foresight networks can be drawn on to aid in decision making. These are ambitious recommendations, but ably supported by the OMB’s regulations promoting foresight in government decision making and management. Additional details on the mission of NAPA and its panel on strategic foresight are available online at http://www.napat16.org/t16-panels/bringing-strategic-foresight-to-bear-in-program-planning-and-management.html.

Tracey Wait of Policy Horizons Canada then reported on the role of foresight activity in support of Canadian government at the national level. Policy Horizons works to increase the foresight capacity of Canadian agencies, co-creates knowledge through foresight across the public service, and issues reports (such as the one presented by Peter Padbury above). By focusing on emerging challenges and opportunities in the 10- to 15-year time frame, Policy Horizons can provide a context to help make short- and medium-term planning more robust and strategic. In both countries, the role of foresight teams is to gather information, engage in the policy dialogue, and offer advice recognizing that there is no guarantee that their findings or recommendations will be accepted and implemented.

Chris Mihm, also from GAO but speaking personally, addressed the significance of the recently adopted 17 Strategic Development Goals (SDGs) to guide and inspire national and international efforts to improve living conditions for people around the world. Unlike previous guidelines aimed primarily at bringing developing nations closer to the norms already common among the wealthy nations of the Northern Hemisphere, the SDGs apply equally to nations North and South, and challenge them to achieve measurable improvements from current levels in all areas within the next 15 years. While no sanctions or penalties for failure are included, Mihm sees good reason to hope that an overwhelming majority of the world’s governments will adopt new strategies to improve the measurement and reporting of conditions affecting all segments of their populations and make significant efforts to improve quality of life and opportunities for self-betterment in every region and at every level of society.

Catarina Tully from the School of International Futures, former strategy project director at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and former adviser to the prime minister, followed up by assessing the potential impact of the UN’s SDGs to empower and inspire ordinary citizens and promote what she termed “frugal foresight” (i.e., more cost-effective efforts by government agencies to improve people’s quality of life). Foresight efforts by government have often faltered in the past because they failed to make a credible case for success when presented to the general public. The democratic process, involving frequent elections, makes long-term thinking difficult and tends to discourage elected officials from making use of foresight studies. Tully’s goal is to change how existing governments view their function and to encourage them to legislate less and interact more directly with people at all levels. She cited Finland, Israel, and Costa Rica as nations that have achieved progress by moving in this direction. While conceding that goals alone are not sufficient, and that factors such as extremist violence and widespread corruption pose significant roadblocks to progress, Tully expressed confidence that the next 18 months will prove a crucial period and establish the viability of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

To round out the meeting, Jason Stiles (BOP) invited participants to propose topics that might be addressed at future meetings or suggest alternative ways to meet and share opinions as a group. Among the suggestions offered were:

  • meeting more often via the Internet;
  • assessing the results of past foresight efforts in greater detail. It was pointed out that convincing leaders and the general public that foresight was a useful exercise would be far easier if it were possible to cite specific beneficial outcomes from a variety of past experiences;
  • focusing on how to address indicators far enough in advance so that potential crises might be avoided instead of merely reacted to;
  • having more presenters at one time, perhaps by holding poster sessions;
  • looking at how experiential gaming can be utilized in foresight exercises;
  • examining how the growing crisis of legitimacy and disaffection with government and institutions may impact foresight efforts; and
  • seeking some way to address belief issues in foresight—i.e., strengthening helpful beliefs and uprooting or downplaying bad ones.

The meeting highlighted the extensive and evolving foresight efforts in Spain, Canada, U.S. federal agencies, and globally (particularly around the Sustainable Development Goals). The meeting itself clearly left participants with a favorable impression of the organizers, the speakers, and the level of comments and questions offered by members of the audience.

Lane Jennings is former managing editor of World Future Review and currently serves on its editorial board.

Acknowledgments: AAI Foresight thanks Clem Bezold, Nancy Donovan, and participants in the meeting for their contributions to, and review of, this report. For more information, contact Bezold at cbezold@altfutures.org or Donovan at nancyjmdonovan@gmail.com.

Copyright 2016 AAI Foresight.

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