Linking Strategic Foresight to Decision Making

by F. Stevens Redburn and Jonathan D. Breul

How can strategic foresight be effectively linked to decision making in the federal executive branch?

Strategic foresight can inform national policy in the face of profound uncertainty about what lies ahead. It recognizes the requirement to look beyond the horizon and imagine a range of possible futures, so that policy makers can prepare for the unexpected and even the unlikely. Strategic foresight efforts enhance the knowledge base for thinking about and designing policies and can help identify current policy gaps. However, foresight can only be useful if it is connected to policy making. How to make these connections is our focus here.

In the face of uncertainty, we believe the Executive Branch needs a system providing an unvarnished assessment of large-scale trends that the nation is likely to face and with the capacity to inform policy recommendations. A case can be made that strategic foresight requires a group with specialized skills that is at least somewhat removed and insulated from the ‘fierce urgency of now’ that characterizes most policy processes in Washington. Even so, to be useful to policy makers, foresight efforts have to connect at appropriate points and ultimately be integrated into more familiar, well-established policy making processes. So, there is a basic tension. On the one hand, strategic foresight requires sufficient intellectual freedom to permit creativity and bold new ideas and vision to emerge. But, on the other hand, procedures and organizational responsibilities must ensure that the speculative, highly conceptual and abstract work of constructing future scenarios and their implications for future policy is connected with established very pragmatic, urgent, and tactical policy processes, including the annual budget process.

We believe both the executive agencies and the President’s staff have a responsibility to multiply the value of strategic foresight efforts by tightly linking these to related but distinct policy development processes in the executive agencies and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). These related processes include: enterprise risk management; strategic planning and reviews; and budgeting. Here we suggest ways of making these connections.

Ensuring the Effective Use of Strategic Foresight in Making Policy

Organizationally and procedurally, we identify five changes needed to ensure effective use of strategic foresight in making policy:

  1. Creating capacity within each major executive agency to think about future threats and risks holistically in relation to their agency’s mission and strategic goals.
  2. Creating a central executive hub that brings together the futures work of multiple agencies and manages the integration of siloed knowledge about future risks and opportunities held in various parts of the bureaucracy.
  3. Tapping strategic thinking by corporations, think tanks, academia, and civil society and integrating these analyses into the foresight and policy process.
  4. Ensuring that foresight processes are rigorous and based on reliable and credible sources.
  5. Securing the President’s leadership and support for building and using strategic foresight as part of policy making and budgeting.

We acknowledge inherent structural barriers to building an anticipatory policy system in government. At the same time, we see green shoots that could be nurtured. For example, starting with Defense, a growing number of executive departments conduct quadrennial planning exercises that resemble or can employ strategic foresight exercises. These are, or could be, in turn connected to 2010 Government and Performance Results Act Modernization Act (GPRAMA) requirements to produce agency strategic plans, with policy objectives and quantified performance goals, and then to regularly review and report on their progress in achieving goals. However, most current planning to meet GPRAMA requirements, or for budgeting, or to address enterprise is primarily focused on short-term outcomes. Agencies develop strategic plans and report to OMB and Congress. Within agencies, their components break complex policies into pieces, establish short-term objectives, establish timelines for meeting these objectives, and use feedback to set the next level of objectives. One key to increasing the value of these planning exercises is to connect them, on one hand, to prior or ongoing strategic foresight and risk assessment and, on the other hand, to the annual budget process and routine policy development.

Foresight in the Agencies

A growing number of agencies have small units dedicated to strategic foresight — among the oldest and most are effective are the Coast Guard’s ‘Evergreen’ group and the Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment. Within an executive department or agency, integration of strategic foresight with related processes can be facilitated by placing all of strategic foresight and related functions under a single policy official, preferably one reporting to the agency head. An example is offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, where the assistant secretary for policy and planning, reporting to the Secretary, now oversees the staffs responsible for enterprise risk management, GPRAMA strategic planning and reviews, policy analysis, and budgeting, as well as for strategic foresight. This is one agency model, but not the only one, for integrating these efforts at a high level.

Managing Foresight for the Executive Branch

Agency leaders often work closely with senior White House and OMB staff at the intersection of agency budgeting and high-level policy making. Building on these established working relationships, effective integration of strategic foresight into established policy making processes throughout the executive could be a responsibility of the Executive Office of the President. Specifically, it could be housed within the already overly busy OMB, an organization comfortable with economic and fiscal forecasting of the more standard sort, although lacking any capacity dedicated explicitly to strategic foresight. A new Branch within OMB would increase executive capacity and represent a departure from those processes implemented under GPRAMA and related measures. The White House policy councils, especially the staff of the National Security Council currently engage in multi-year planning exercises that either require or could use strategic foresight and could be partners with OMB in deploying strategic foresight to inform high-level decision-making.

As with current budget processes, OMB would handle foresight-driven analysis of legislation and policy issues. To support this, the President’s Management Council and the Performance Improvement Council could be given designated to nurture and support integration of strategic foresight into the agencies’ policy development and budgeting processes.

Strategic Foresight and Budget Development

We believe that a key forum for the application of strategic foresight should be the executive’s budget development. But, how do you go about integrating foresight with budgeting? Our premise is that in a turbulent world proper budgeting over a multi-year horizon requires grappling with profound uncertainties arising from nonlinearities and volatility. Building an agency’s annual budget therefore involves estimating the potential consequences for achievement of national policy objectives from known risks and opportunities, and then reserving further for the unknown. This starts with strategic foresight and risk assessment. Connecting these to budgeting requires ‘backcasting’ from future scenarios and estimation of risks to achievement of policy objectives in order to identify practical steps and milestones that must be met to realize a desired future. Budgeting then translates these into near-term resource allocations that will help mitigate or avoid harmful or catastrophic futures and to maximize opportunities offered by optimistic scenarios. This approach to budgeting assumes it can be reformed to shift focus to longer-term, more systemic issues; to consider deeper analysis of alternative futures; and to focus more on how to expand future financial capacity to deal with unforeseen shocks and opportunities. The current budget process may not be up to this, but it can and should be reformed so that it can properly use the results of the forward-looking analyses that strategic foresight will provide.

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