Reflections on the Nixon National Goals Research Staff

By Ken Hunter

Has a previous White House sponsored a major foresight initiative? Yes, the Nixon White House starting in 1969.

The core of the global futures controversy in the late 1960s was the “limits to growth debate.” The Nixon Administration started immediately to address growth policy. On July 13, 1969, President Nixon announced the establishment of the National Goals Research Staff within the White House to operate under the direction of Leonard Garment, Daniel P. Moynihan, and Arthur Burns, all senior Presidential advisors. The announcement asserts that:

“We can no longer afford to approach the long-term future haphazardly. As the pace of change accelerates, the processes of change become more complex. Yet at the same time, an extraordinary array of tools and techniques has been developed by which it becomes increasingly possible to project future trends — and thus to make the kind of informed choices which are necessary if we are to establish mastery over the process of change.”
“The functions of the National Goals Research Staff will include:

  • forecasting future developments, and assessing the long-range consequences of present social trends;
  • measuring the probable future impacts of alternative courses of action, including measuring the degree to which changes in one area would likely affect another;
  • estimating the actual range of social choice — that is, what alternative sets of goals might be attainable, in light of the availability of resources and possible rates of progress;
  • developing and monitoring social indicators that can reflect the present and future quality of American life, and the direction and rate of its change; and
  • summarizing, integrating, and correlating the results of related research activities being carried on within the various Federal agencies, and by State and local governments and private organizations.”

“The first assignment of this research group will be to assemble data that can help illuminate a possible range of national goals for 1976 — our 200th anniversary. It will prepare a public report, to be delivered by July 4 of next year, and annually thereafter, …”
The staff was a small team with a very wide access to agency as well as academic, think tanks, and business talent. There organization chart was:
NGRSNixonThe National Goals Research Staff did publish their report on July 4, 1970, titled “Toward Balanced Growth: Quantity with Quality.” Daniel P. Moynihan, Counsellor to the President, prepared a statement introducing the report. While the report’s purpose was to address the debates of the time about growth policy, it captured the world view and passion for strong and effective government institutions with systemic foresight and accountability. Dr. Moynihan states that: “The key term here, of course, is system. The idea of policy arises from the recognition that the social system is just that, a system. … That is to say, the objective of policy is to guide government activities in accordance with the properties of a system.” He emphasized the need to focus on the results (outputs) of government interventions not just the programs (inputs). He also emphasized:

  • the role of citizen participation and the need to provide the public in advance essential data on which basic decisions about public policy are made; and
  • the importance of accountability, siting the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, and its implementation.

The report covers each of the debates of the time and set the stage for policy actions taken in the 1970s:

  • Population, including limiting population growth, migration and immigration, and urbanization, including alternative growth centers and new communities.
  • Environment, including man recognized as part of nature, Rachel Carson’s arguments, clean air and clean water, putting a price on pollution, and collective and preventive strategies.
  • Education, including standards, financing, children of minorities, and special education.
  • Basic natural sciences, including reference to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 arguments for Federal promotion of science, and goals for U.S. science leadership and funding.
  • Technology assessment, including the business view that government technology assessment would be anti-growth.

As we know, significant actions were taken in all of these policy areas in the following few years.

This White House foresight initiative did not survive Watergate, Viet Nam, budget battles, and the loss of confidence in the White House. The post-World War II era of long-term and big picture policy making illustrated by the work of the National Goals Research Staff and subsequent reforms ended in the Spring of 1981. At that point, the Reagan Administration abruptly shifted to a policy paradigm based on deep faith in the power of markets and the importance of reducing the size and influence of government – they immediately eliminated most domestic planning and evaluation functions within agencies and via grants to states and local governments.

Note: Used copies of “Toward Balanced Growth: Quantity with Quality” are usually available on Amazon.com.

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