Looking long term: how governments can use strategic foresight

Fundamental transformations such as emerging technologies, an ageing population, and climate change are happening all around us.

Unfortunately, governments often struggle to prepare themselves for change and end up lagging behind. In order to remain relevant and responsive to their citizens, governments must think strategically about the future and prepare themselves for both the predictable and the unpredictable.

In doing so, they develop the ability to detect emerging trends at an early stage and anticipate future challenges, so that they keep ahead of the curve. Effective governmental “strategic foresight”, which can assume many different forms, is able to strengthen public sector organisations, promote good governance, and enable governments to be proactive rather than reactive.

Defining the problem

“Strategic foresight” can be defined as a process of creative evaluation that applies available knowledge and forecasting analysis to potential futures. Implementing such a process can be managed and executed within government or by an external organisation.

They can be organised around a centralised unit, providing insight to every government department, or in a decentralised and more context-specific manner. Governments can encourage forward-looking thinking through informal practices or via formally planned qualitative or quantitative exercises.

Which method best encourages effective thinking depends on four factors: the time range, the available resources, the working environment, and how the results will be used. For instance, the UK government uses pathway methods to sketch out possible developments that may drive future change. Will the energy price drop or stay the same in the near and long term when specific renewable energy policies are introduced? And if yes, how much?

In this case, a quantitative approach based on hard data might be possible. By contrast, there is no specific answer to the question of how digitisation will affect citizens’ lives in the next 50 years. A qualitative approach, combining various knowledge and opinions would provide a grasp of the many intertwined influences. This type of work would bridge across multiple government departments, and requires cooperation between them.

The problem is that even though there are many different ways of approaching strategic foresight, governments often have trouble using any of them. Public sector organisations are commonly constrained by a “lens of now” cognitive bias, where the imperatives of the day overshadow long-term plans and resources. It is difficult for politicians to justify spending on planning for possible futures when their citizens have more urgent needs.

Moreover, the organisational culture of public departments can impede effective strategic foresight. To achieve its maximum potential, the government must be nimble and able to adapt to changing times; however, traditional bureaucracies aren’t typically flexible and are rather rigidly hierarchical, often deterring creative thinking and adaptability. Finally, some people even question the validity of strategic foresight and view it as hocus-pocus future telling and not worth their time or resources. These points of view impede governments’ attempts to develop effective and sustainable strategic foresight capabilities and to get, and stay, ahead.

What are countries doing?

To overcome these barriers, design effective foresight processes, and acquire competence, governments must strike a balance. On the one hand, by setting up a sustainable mindset to think beyond the day-to-day work; on the other hand, by formalising processes, sharing results, and translating the results into actionable policies.

Finland has created a “foresight mindset” through discussion rounds that gather together politicians, administrative officials and experts on a regular basis, with the aim of thinking ahead to the next 50 years. As an example of direct impact, these rounds have allowed the country to examine the future of work and experiment with the universal basic income policy.

Other countries, such as Singapore, created an open strategic foresight culture by encouraging strategic knowledge to be shared freely between the public and stakeholders as well as subject-matter experts. They have also created an extensive glossary of all foresight terms and methods.

On the organisational side, countries like Japan and India have created small centralised units designed specifically for strategic foresight. This autonomy is advisable, so that the “lens of now” political issue does not get in the way. Others, like Brazil, look externally for strategic foresight expertise, which is useful when there is a lack of time and internal resources. Some governments prefer informal practices which are embedded in the culture, while others prefer more scientific techniques and scenario planning.

There is no one-size-fits-all method of strategic foresight, but it is crucial that governments start to engage in conversations about the future, so that they are able to stay in the forefront of change and act in their citizens’ best interest. The challenge remains to develop sustainable capabilities and a forward-looking mindset that can achieve high policy impact.

The authors of this article are students from LSE’s MS Public Management and Governance class of 2017: Ben Bussiek, Josefina Gimenez, Julie Miller, Andres O’Farrell, David van Boven

 

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