U.S. Trends and Strategies, Futurist Moves, Remembering Barlow, and More

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Volume 4,
Number 3
March 11, 2018

Trends Affecting U.S. Government and Society

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has released its latest report outlining major trends affecting government and society, with implications for addressing these trends over the next five years. The 40-page document, “Trends Affecting Government and Society: Strategic Plan 2018-2023” (GAO-18-396SP), focuses on trends, uncertainties, and implications in eight areas:

Domestic and global security. The threat of cyberattacks is both a domestic and a global issue, challenging both the functionality of government institutions and people’s faith in them. Terrorism and violent threats, too, stem from both homegrown and international sources. Such trends present challenges to “how U.S. agencies are organized and authorized to detect and respond to threats and how they collaborate to achieve success,” the report says. GAO also calls for “new assessments of national and international law and policy … to anticipate and counter the potential nefarious use of advanced technologies such as AI, synthetic biology, and genome editing.”

Fiscal outlook and the debt. Debt held by the public was 76 percent of GDP in fiscal year 2017, compared with an average of 46 percent since 1946, putting the nation on a long-term fiscal path that is unsustainable, the report states. The major drivers of spending increases over the long term are health care programs and interest payments on the debt, which will ultimately reduce national savings and income, put constraints on other areas of the budget, and limit lawmakers’ ability to respond to emergencies. Instead of raising the debt limit, the GAO urges Congress to “consider alternative approaches that would better link decisions about borrowing to finance the debt with decisions about spending and revenue at the time those decisions are made.”

Economics and trade. Since the end of the “great recession,” the global economy has grown, especially in emerging countries. While U.S. economic growth has outpaced that of Europe and Japan, the gains have primarily been for only a portion of the population. International trade agreements such as NAFTA have not been updated in 25 years, and domestic policies have failed to address the needs of those hurt by globalization and technological change. GAO suggests governments and institutions could choose to pursue “collaborative, inclusive growth” while protecting national interests by seeking areas of common interest. But how they succeed will depend on if “new policies to manage current economic challenges are put in place in time to respond to the inevitable realization of future economic risks.”

Jobs and education. Technological advances are changing both the types of jobs available and the skills they require. U.S. students lag peers in other countries in math and science achievement, and 38 percent of employers report difficulty in finding qualified workers. And workers over age 55 will comprise 24.3 percent of the workforce by 2020, compared with 11.9 percent in 1990. GAO suggests programs to better align education and workforce systems, including retraining for populations such as older workers who face workforce barriers.

Demographics and society. Individuals over age 65 will represent about 20 percent of the U.S. population in 2030, compared with less than 10 percent in 1970. Overall, the U.S. population will grow 26 percent between 2013 and 2050, compared with 33 percent worldwide. The population is also becoming more diverse, with “significant racial, gender, education, and urbanicity dimensions to [a] growing income inequality.” GAO observes that, historically, immigration has eased the impacts of the nation’s falling birthrate and aging population on economic growth, “and debate over national immigration policy will have consequences for future economic performance and federal programs.” It concludes that “strengthening Social Security and providing adequate protection for vulnerable populations, such as low income individuals, older women, and minorities, will be important.”

Science and technology. GAO identifies five emerging technologies with potential to transform society: genome editing, artificial intelligence and automation, quantum information science, brain-computer interfaces and augmented reality, and cryptocurrencies and blockchain. The federal government should continue to study and debate these technologies for their economic, ethical, privacy, safety, security, and societal implications, GAO says. But with limited financial resources, the government will also need to “assess how well federal R&D activities achieve their desired results, protect intellectual property, and translate scientific advances into technology innovations.”

Government and governance. That the federal government relies increasingly on third parties to do its work—and doesn’t always have the right people and tools in place to manage those relationships—may be contributing to another key trend GAO cites: “Public confidence in the federal government is at historic lows.” To operate in an increasingly interconnected and complex environment, “policymakers and program administrators must work across the government enterprise,” the report states. GAO recommends the government pursue a “new technology infrastructure and a workforce with the knowledge and skills to effectively use those technologies,” along with finding ways to engage and interact with its increasingly diverse citizenry.

Environment and sustainability. The environment is increasingly stressed by competition for resources such as water, and demand for the energy resources critical to economic growth are contributing to harmful impacts on air and water quality and could potentially change the climate, the report states. Meanwhile, extreme weather and fire events have cost the federal government more than $350 billion in the past decade in domestic disaster response and relief, wildland fire management, crop and flood insurance, and repair to federal assets. These challenges are larger than a single federal agency can manage and have cross-agency impacts. “International, state, local, tribal, and private-sector decision makers also have important roles to play,” the report notes. Collaborating with all stakeholders will require “establishing clear leadership and roles and responsibilities; defining and articulating a common outcome; establishing strategies to leverage resources to avoid duplicative efforts; and developing mechanisms to monitor, evaluate, and report results, among other practices.”

Trends Affecting Government and Society: Strategic Plan 2018-2023” (GAO-18-396SP), is the third part of the GAO’s 2018-2023 strategic plan, which follows its “Goals and Objectives” (GAO-18-1SP) and “Key Efforts” (GAO-18-395SP). The reports’ authors consulted “with a wide variety of experts both inside and outside the federal government,” the foreword states. GAO says it will continue updating the work “to reflect changes in external factors and new emerging issues. This continuous scanning of trends will help ensure GAO remains an agile and responsive organization.”

Public comments on the report may be submitted to James-Christian Blockwood, managing director, spel@gao.gov, 202-512-4707, U.S. Government Accountability Office, 441 G Street NW, Room 7814, Washington, DC 20548.

Futurist Opportunities and Moves in the Field

Information Technology and Innovation Foundation has announced several career opportunities: economic policy analyst, policy fellow at the Center for Data Innovation (paid, temporary), communications intern (paid), and office manager/staff assistant. Learn more or apply at ITIF’s careers page.

Rob Bencini has been named executive director of the West Piedmont Workforce Investment Board in Martinsville, Virginia. The program helps connect job seekers and employers through training and professional development programs. Bencini is a Certified Economic Developer, economic futurist, and co-author of Pardon the Disruption: The Future You Never Saw Coming (Wasteland Press, 2013).

Jerome C. Glenn, executive director of The Millennium Project, will create and chair a Legacy Council for the World Future Society, with the goal of identifying the best histories of futures research, books the next generation of futurists should read, and key insights from early futurists.

Glenn has also announced The Millennium Project’s formation of an Executive Management Council to help begin the transition of leadership to a new generation: Elizabeth Florescu, director of research and MP webmaster; Ibon Zugasti, director of node synergies; Cornelia Daheim, new business development; Jose Cordeiro, director of future concepts; Blaž Golob, director of transinstitutional relations; and Wes Boyer, Global Futures Intelligence Systems webmaster. Glenn remains executive director, and the Board of Directors is unchanged. For more information, contact Glenn at Jerome.Glenn@Millennium-Project.org.

In Memoriam: Barlow, Taub

Electronic Freedom Foundation founder and Internet pioneer John Perry Barlow died February 6, 2018, at age 70. Wyoming native Barlow, a digital rights activist and champion of free speech, was also a lyricist for the Grateful Dead and a cattle rancher. “Barlow knew that new technology could create and empower evil as much as it could create and empower good,” writes EFF’s Cindy Cohn. “He made a conscious decision to focus on the latter.” Read more at EFF.

Futurist Lawrence Taub, author of The Spiritual Imperative (Clear Glass Publications, 2002), died in February, reports Asia Times. “In the world of conventional futurists, women play no role in either the past or the future. In Taub’s macrohistory, women are a key driving force behind the changes in the world today,” writes Jan Krikke. Read more at Asia Times or visit Krikke’s tribute page for Taub at Medium.