Can We Finally Link Foresight To Policy?

By Leon Fuerth

We are entering a season when many groups are thinking about how to advise the next Administration on matters of policy, organization, or both.  NAPA is now working on this, specifically addressing the challenge of how to incorporate strategic foresight and policy.

Addressing this challenge is a significant intellectual effort, but even more formidable in terms of political psychology. Successful politicians will, in the course of their campaigns, have already projected a narrative about what they intend to do if elected.

During the Transition period, between election and inauguration, the President-elect and closest advisers will be working to structure and populate a new administration that will have to translate the campaign narrative into operations. The atmosphere is one of certitude and determination, which is not conducive to the open, questioning frame of mind required for the practice of strategic foresight.

Several years ago, I led a research project which focused on strategic foresight, developing ideas that were based in part on my experience in the Clinton-Gore White House.  That project resulted in a report in 2012 – Anticipatory Governance:  Practical Upgrades — that offers three sets of actionable solutions.  Each solution includes a range of options for how it might be implemented.  The solution areas are:

Solution 1:  Systematically Integrate Foresight and Policy Development.  Unlike some other countries, the U.S. does not have an institutional mechanism or office at the top of government to systematically scan the horizon or systematically generate alternative future scenarios. The military, the international affairs community, and homeland security each have offices to do this for their respective domains, but there isn’t something like this for the federal government as a whole.

The report observes: “The acceleration of today’s events has the effect of compressing the time that policymakers have to respond, and government processes that are designed to be deliberate are challenged when the rest of the world is speeding up.” If such a process were in place, events like Katrina, the 2008 financial crisis, and the anticipation of the Arab Spring in 2011 might not have been as stark.

The report recommends options around:

  • Organizing a foresight system that has access to the top of government but is detached from day-to-day crises
  • Creating brokering arrangements between foresight and policy development
  • Incentivizing the use of foresight when developing policy
  • Training professionals to incorporate foresight and collaborative skills into their professional development.

Solution 2:  Use Networks to Organize and Manage Complex Issues.  Policy issues today do not respect traditional organizational boundaries inherent in large bureaucracies. Network theory offers an alternative way to organize governance. This is reinforced by a wide range of both national security and domestic policy observers.  The report recommends “management to mission” rather than the traditional “management by jurisdiction.”  The challenge is to approach this in a way that respects current accountability and resource allocation institutions, and is seen as legitimate by stakeholders in a democratic system, in a strategic way.

The report recommends options around:

  • Networking the strategy and policy planning offices across agencies to provide a “whole picture” view of major issues
  • Leveraging the processes of existing deputies’ and interagency policy committees to focus on strategy, not day-to-day operations
  • Engaging the Cabinet to strategically coordinate planning and execution
  • Networking integrators for cross-agency missions, as envisioned in recent law.
  • Budgeting for strategic impact by integrating OMB and policy council decision-making systems
  • Synchronizing national strategy reports so they interrelate
  • Systematizing strategic priorities, such as through a framework of National Strategies that are reviewed regularly
  • Reformatting the dialogue with Congress by communicating at a strategic level rather than the traditional disaggregated program or agency levels.

Solution 3:  Constantly Monitor and Respond to Policies During Implementation.  Feedback systems exist throughout the government, but according to the report, this is not done systematically at the top of the government. Feedback is necessary to monitor and adjust policies; to provide accountability and control; and to learn what works and what doesn’t.  The ideal is to monitor actual events in close-to-real time to alert policymakers to potential consequences of these actions.

The report recommends options around:

  • Ensuring presidential decision reports include a set of elements that will make it possible to track policy execution to determine its effectiveness.
  • Establishing an institutional venue for feedback on policy implementation.  The report notes that there is no COO at the White House other than the Chief of Staff to follow through on decisions made by the president.
  • Continuously sharing of specific performance indicators among senior officials to provide early warning signals if circumstances are deteriorating.
  • Diagnostic reviews of major policies to routinely check for signs of policy deterioration, possibly similar to data-driven reviews currently operated by some of the major departments.

Conclusion.  It may well be that advising a team of people flushed with victory that they should now re-examine all their goals through the prism of foresight, will shut down rather than open up their receptivity. On the other hand, any candidate will have been thinking almost constantly about risk-management, and may therefore be receptive to an approach based on using foresight as a risk-management tool from the outset of a new administration. If so, it would follow that the winner and the winner’s team will be open to the question of how to organize this process fast, as an early priority, radiating from the most senior levels of the new administration.

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1 thought on “Can We Finally Link Foresight To Policy?”

  1. A national election is a whole different ball game…but here in the District of Columbia at the local level, I have used a convening method with constituents/voters of a Council member . During our campaign our polling indicated what the top issues were/are. We convened a group of experts to provide more detailed context and then offer up a series of options. We then shared these ideas with the community and asked for input on which options they liked. We plan on going back out to the community to provide updates and to update our policy priorities in the summer. This is an example of adaptive planning in the context of policy creation. I believe this process contributed greatly to our unseating a 4 term council member.

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