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Strategic foresight for future-ready recoveries

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Strategic foresight helps governments to consider alternative futures and identify new opportunities and challenges in the face of great change and uncertainty. As governments prepare to invest massively in recovery strategies, their use for strategic foresight is more important than ever. Public auditors can play a key role in helping this happen. Dexter Docherty and Alanna Markle work as Strategic Foresight Analysts at the OECD where they collaborate closely with OECD staff, national governments and foresight practitioners to explore disruptive changes that could occur in the future and the implications for policy decisions today. Below they point out how they also see a role for public auditors to make programmes more future-ready and support anticipatory governance.

By Dexter Docherty and Alanna Markle, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development

We find ourselves today at a historical turning point. Governments around the world are poised to make unprecedented public investments to assist with the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as enact a number of important policy reforms to reduce carbon emissions and facilitate successful digitalisation. These investments and reforms will have impacts for decades to come.

These investments are being made in a context of tremendous uncertainty about what the future will bring as a result of the pandemic, and also for example in terms of climate-related crises, technological innovation, and political turbulence. Futures thinking is needed more than ever to make sure that governments avoid mistakes that could have lasting consequences and seize the full-potential of this transformational moment. This is especially true for public auditors tasked with the ex-ante assessment of European recovery strategies.

There are two main ways in which auditors can begin to incorporate futures thinking into their efforts to ensure countries’ plans for the COVID-19 recovery are future-ready. First, strategic foresight methods can be integrated into the work of auditors tasked with evaluating the robustness of policies, programs and institutions faced with an uncertain future. Second, they can support investment into broader systems of anticipatory governance, a whole-of-government approach to integrating futures thinking at every level of decision-making.

Strategic foresight is an approach to thinking systematically about the future to inform decision-making in the present. It is not about predictions or forecasts, which tend to project existing data and trends into the future. Rather, foresight starts from the explicit recognition that it is impossible to accurately or fully predict the future.

Foresight involves inquiry into assumptions about the future in an attempt to discover where commonly held expectations of continuity may be flawed, even if they are based on extensive historical data.

The OECD promotes the use of strategic foresight in policymaking as a crucial method for helping to ensure that the long-term strategies of governments are as future-ready as possible. Similarly, the European Commission has committed to putting ‘strategic foresight at the heart of EU policymaking’ and views foresight as an essential input for building long-term resilience in Europe. (1)

In practical terms, this involves making use of multiple future scenarios to challenge commonly held assumptions and surface potential disruptions. This can be done through proactive engagement with the future that identifies signals of potential change and emerging disruptors. After these are identified, strategic foresight analysts try to conceive of the multitude of ways in which these emerging disruptors might impact many different systems and sectors of society. Through this sort of analysis, it is possible to design adaptive forward-looking strategies that are ready to be successful in a range of plausible futures.

While the development of world-class anticipatory governance capacity is a long-term investment, there are many small steps that can be taken today by any organisation to integrate elements of futures thinking into their operations. To begin with, decision-makers (and auditors) can help to ensure the future-readiness and long-term viability of proposed recovery strategies by asking a series of simple but targeted questions:

  • What possible future changes or scenarios have you taken into account that could disrupt the success of this proposal or render it counter-productive in the years ahead?

a. What expectations and assumptions about the future is this strategy based on? What are the conditions under which these expectations and assumptions would cease to be reliable?

b. What key uncertainties about the future could have a bearing on this proposal? How would the proposed strategy hold up under alternative plausible extreme of these uncertainties?

c. What alternative scenarios have you considered from relevant existing foresight publications by your government or other organisations? Have the proposed strategies been stress-tested against these alternative scenarios?

  • What steps have you taken to add monitoring and flexibility to the proposal so that rapid adjustments and adaptations could be made under changing conditions if necessary?
  • What existing foresight capacity (e.g. foresight units within the government or foresight experts in universities or business) have you identified and engaged to help you to answer the questions above?

While no substitute for a full foresight process, applying such heuristics may serve to ensure that easily anticipated future challenges and opportunities are taken into account; instil an initial level of foresight reflection and accountability within policy proposals and debate; and prepare the ground for later, more substantial foresight efforts.

Moreover, it is a good organisational practice to dedicate staff time to basic horizon scanning, which involves research into emerging innovations and potentially disruptive developments. Awareness about these developments can be spread throughout the rest of the organisation through discussion sessions or scanning clubs where staff explore what could happen if the weak signals of change identified in the scanning were to grow into megatrends over the next decade.

Anticipatory governance is the systematic embedding and application of futures thinking and strategic foresight through the entire governance architecture. Futures methods can be used to inform policy analysis, engagement, and decision-making. The OECD has worked with leading practitioners around the world to identify seven features of ‘world class’ anticipatory governance systems, each with multiple levels of advancement within them (see Table 1). The features are:

  • shared understanding of the role and purpose for foresight in improving public policy through future-proofing policies, broadening perspectives on the possible, challenging orthodoxies, strengthening futures literacy;
  • putting in place strong incentives or a mandate among leadership for foresight to improve public policy including through legislative commitments to foresight, creating parliamentary committees or departments of the future, and performance agreements that require rigorous foresight. Auditing standards for future-proofing policy and budgeting could likewise provide such an incentive;
  • establishing and embedding practices for widespread ongoing application of foresight to improve public policy such as horizon-scanning, scenarios development, visioning, policy innovation and design, policy implementation, and many more foresight methodologies. The lasting impact of a foresight intervention does not only come from the final publications generated, but in the changed mindsets and new ideas embraced by those who are engaged in the conversations that lead to the final product;
  • supporting processes for active participation of decision-makers and stakeholders at all levels in foresight to improve public policy including with parliamentarians, ministers and senior officials, public servants, stakeholders, and citizens. Good foresight prioritizes inclusiveness to avoid colonizing the future with the perspectives of only the privileged and powerful;
  • fostering institutions to successfully perform the above practices and processes on an ongoing basis. This institutional support can come in many different forms from centralized foresight bodies that provide research and insights to the rest of government and society,2 to mandates given to key ministries to integrate strategic foresight into operations such as audits or strategic planning, to coordinated networks of practitioners that allow for knowledge-sharing and capacity building among public servants;
  • developing the capacities and skills to perform practices and processes and achieve foresight purposes. Examples of this include training and learning opportunities for key foresight functions such as public engagement on foresight, communicating foresight, commissioning foresight, designing foresight processes, foresight research, and anticipatory innovation; and
  • encouraging collaboration with global partners and others to advance shared foresight objectives including through joint foresight projects and processes, as well as hosting conferences and participating in global networks.
  • Table 1 — Features of ‘world class’ anticipatory governance systems, by level of advancement

The OECD supports its members and non-member governments in advancing towards the ideal of world class anticipatory governance in several ways. First, the OECD collaborates with governments and leading futurists globally to develop foresight processes and products. For example, the OECD Strategic Foresight Unit is currently developing a foresight toolkit to support countries in developing future-ready strategies to meet their commitments to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. The OECD has also done recent thematic work on migration, (3) education (4) and digital transformation. (5) These can be used by organisations as input into policy development and as a starting point for their own further foresight work.

Second, the OECD develops and delivers training programmes for civil servants based on a country’s existing capacities and growth potential. Foresight capacity building develops the skills to conduct foresight processes and embed futures thinking into policymaking. The Strategic Foresight Unit includes capacity-building elements into its collaborative thematic projects, so by becoming involved in the OECD’s foresight work, governments can strengthen their capacity through learning by doing. The Observatory on Public Sector Innovation at the OECD is one of the leading bodies partnering with countries to implement an anticipatory innovation governance approach .

Third, it provides baseline capacity evaluations on a country-level basis; an evaluation may focus on anticipatory governance capacity alone, or be considered in the context of a larger agenda such as policy tools for achieving the SDGs.

Fourth, the OECD Strategic Foresight Unit facilitates collaboration among government foresight practitioners through the Government Foresight Community, a global network of over 250 senior public sector foresight experts from more than 130 countries. Collaboration can be as simple as participation network events, but also involves joint initiatives, something that has been made significantly easier due to the COVID-19 boom in virtual work.

In the recovery context and beyond, the responsible approach for policymakers is to explore and prepare for a range of alternative plausible futures rather than relying on assumptions. Public auditors can use foresight methods to test recovery plans and other long-term policy proposals against multiple future scenarios and evaluate their robustness. They can set standards requiring governments to use scenario planning as part of the budgeting process. They can include the identification of future assumptions required for their success as an element of transparency. Finally, they can create incentives for governments to develop the institutional culture and mechanisms required for world class anticipatory governance. More information on such methods can be found for example in a specific OECD Public Governance Review on this issue (see below).

Ultimately, anticipatory governance is about optimising government performance for the long-term. Strategic foresight and other futures method can play a crucial role in tackling wicked problems and intervening in complex adaptive systems. (6) They can also serve as a means of testing that the assumptions of major strategic initiatives as well as ex-ante audits and evaluations are robust and likely to be resilient across a range of plausible futures.

Source: OECD

Fully developed anticipatory governance capacity requires the participation of actors at every level of government. The auditor community would be a welcome addition to efforts to grow foresight capacity in governments around the world, as together we seek to build back better. As OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría stated in his keynote address to the Government Foresight Community last October, ‘…the more minds and the more perspectives are brought together to coproduce projects, the stronger and the most effective the strategic foresight work becomes.’ (7)

(1) European Commission, 2020 Strategic Foresight Report: Charting the Course Towards a More Resilient Europe, 2020.

(2) One of the most world-renowned examples of this is the Centre for Strategic Futures within Singapore’s Prime Minister’s Office. The CSF emerged in its current form as a heart of government think tank in 2009, but its history dates back to a Scenario Planning Office within the Prime Minister’s Office established in 1995 and even earlier to future planning efforts within the Ministry of Defence in the 1980s.

(3) OECD, (2019), Towards 2035 Strategic Foresight: Making Migration and Integration Policies Future Ready, OECD publishing, Paris, 2019. OECD (2020), Back to the Future of Education, idem.

(4) OECD, (2021), Going Digital in Latvia, idem.

(5) OECD, (2021), Going Digital in Latvia, idem.

(6) Angela Wilkinson and Esther Eidinow, Evolving practices in environmental scenarios: a new scenario typology, in Environmental Research Lett. 3 045017, 2008.

(7) What future beyond Covid-19? — YouTube. The extensive meeting summary for the 2020 Government Foresight Community Meeting can be found here: OECD GFC Annual Meeting Report 2020.pdf

This article was first published on the 1/2021 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.



The ECA Journal features articles on a variety of current audit topics, the ECA’s role and work. It is available in electronic form below, and paper copies can be ordered online at the EU Bookshop.

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