Why many Governments don’t Embrace Strategic Foresight

Photo by Gábor Veres on Unsplash

As I explained in a previous post, Strategic Foresight offers a range of benefits to organizations in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. And yet…most aren’t using it. Here I examine some reasons why governments globally have been hesitant to embrace Foresight.

Given Foresight’s value proposition, what stops public sector organizations from using it? One leading reason is the immediate focus on the present. While an increasing number of governments use Foresight methods, the imperative to respond to the needs of the “here and now” draws decision-makers away from a look further down the road. Political leaders and partisan appointees in government ministries/departments often employ short-term thinking, connected to upcoming votes or elections. Their more immediate priorities become the priorities of the public servants who report to them.

Although Foresight has gained a stronger foothold over time, it still remains a mystery to many. The terminology and techniques require some thought and practice to understand. Foresight is sometimes seen as abstract, theoretical, or lofty and removed from hard-nosed reality in a competitive world.

Since technology is a key influencer of many major changes that lie ahead, Foresight scenarios can appear lifted from the script of a sci-fi movie. It can be a little difficult to explain Foresight, thus leading to misinterpretations that it is some sort of guessing game or drawn-out brainstorming session. Because Foresight challenges current assumptions and is not bound to statistics on earlier developments, skeptics may allege that it is poorly grounded in reality as we perceive it today.

Busy leaders focused on several competing demands may not be convinced by the value of contemplating widely divergent scenarios of the future. They have enough on their plate without having to sort through possibilities that each demand a different approach in planning. Decision-makers prefer certainty and clarity – things that Foresight does not promise.

In short, it is a big step for an organization to cross the threshold into the world of Foresight. An investment of budgetary and staffing resources is required (to monitor signals of change, perform research, solicit expert opinions, hold workshops, and engage professional outside expertise). Even if modest relative to the organization’s capacity, the investment inevitably is weighed against alternatives that are better known and have a track record within the organization. It can be hard for decision-makers to justify the use of precious budgetary resources to plan for distant futures when clients, citizens and stakeholders have needs that must be met this week.

There is also the fear factor. The future can be intimidating, and some long-term futures portray a world that is, frankly speaking, somewhat dystopian. For a Foresight exercise to be truly credible, it needs to consider possibilities that we may be afraid to discuss, or which are politically sensitive or socially controversial. We don’t want to think about bad things happening. But the freedom to explore what could happen in the period ahead is essential to formulating plausible alternative futures. Without such freedom, the process becomes less useful.

Public sector organizations are not known for their nimbleness and agility, and their employees lack incentives to innovate and propose fundamental changes – the kind of changes that Foresight often reveals as both prudent and sensible. Career civil servants aren’t rewarded for rocking the boat in a hierarchical structure. The use of Foresight becomes more promising when the organization using it is creative and open to new ways of working.

If an organization has courageously forged ahead, deliberated even unpleasant possibilities, and completed a well- designed Foresight exercise, it may find something unexpected and potentially threatening. The scenarios resulting from the exercise may imply unpalatable decisions and actions. This can create great unease, and the temptation may arise to put the “interesting study” aside.

As you see, there are some obstacles to overcome. So, why persevere? Refer back to the ten benefits that I have previously written about. They are real, as more and more organizations are discovering, and not only government organizations. Many of us have work-related responsibilities to provide sound counsel in areas under our purview. We are doing an incomplete job if we are not presenting alternative perspectives.

The proverbial scale is tilting in the direction of “more Foresight” in organizations. COVID-19 has spilled out on to a terrain already experiencing tremors of great change, and it is breaking down resistance to investing in study of the future. The pandemic has highlighted the risk of not anticipating and preparing adequately for significant risks. “Future proofing” our policies just seems to make good sense.

This post draws from my new, pandemic-inspired book, Learning from Tomorrow: Using Strategic Foresight to Prepare for the Next Big Disruption (2021), available here.

Author of Learning from Tomorrow: Using Strategic Foresight to Prepare for the Next Big Disruption

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