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Building foresight capability – helping government ‘take care of tomorrow, today’

18 October 2022

News and media


The Covid-19 pandemic showed that few governments were able to anticipate and effectively prepare for future disruptive events. Foresight is increasingly recognised as a key function of good government and an essential input to policy design and strategy. Foresight helps to identify new or emerging challenges and future opportunities. Foresight methods can also be used to stress test or future proof policy responses. Futures thinking is essential for rigorous long-term policy advice.  

ANZSOG jurisdictions are working to build foresight capability

Several ANZSOG jurisdictions are actively building foresight capability within and across government agencies. ANZSOG recently convened a ‘curated conversation’ to bring together senior officials from several jurisdictions – Australian Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and the Departments of Premier and Cabinet from New South Wales and South Australia – to share lessons and approaches to improving foresight capability. The conversation was focused on ‘building capability in foresight’, rather than on ‘how to do foresight’.  Participants were keen to also engage with Singapore, considered a world leader in government foresight capability. The Head of Singapore’s Centre for Strategic Futures, Jeannette Kwek, kicked off the session with an overview of Singapore’s decades long foresight journey. The session was moderated by Sally Washington, ANZSOG’s Executive Director, Aotearoa New Zealand. Dr Ryan Young, Director of the National Security College’s Futures Hub at the Australian National University acted as ‘keynote listener’ to draw insights from the discussion. The conversation was held under Chatham House Rule, but participating jurisdictions were open to sharing their experience and insights with the broader ANZSOG community. Key themes and insights from the discussion are captured in the curated conversation published as part of the Research Insights series.  

The discussion confirmed that governments are increasingly aware of the importance of thinking beyond current timeframes. As one participant noted: “It’s not that people aren’t thinking about the future, they’re just doing it in an ad-hoc way. How can we be more systematic in supporting them?” Having dedicated support within the public service to help catalyse futures thinking and develop foresight capability can help mitigate current incentives to focus on the short-term (often driven by politics and election cycles). A foresight or futures function is required to support critical state functions like infrastructure planning, or to provide advice on strategic goals or challenges that are cross-cutting and involve longer-term timeframes, like workforce issues, aging populations and climate change. 

In Singapore, external shocks such as 9/11, SARS and the Global Financial Crisis resulted in a tightening of links between foresight and strategy; and a focus on being able to understand, anticipate and adjust to changes in the external environment and how they might affect Singapore’s population.  In 2015 the function became part of the Prime Minister’s Office to enable more deliberate whole-of-government coordination and strategic planning. Participating jurisdictions are all working to build foresight capability. They are at different stages of maturity, from starting out to relatively established functions, albeit not at the level of Singapore. All also sit at the centre of government in their jurisdictions – Prime Ministers or Premiers departments – and all are focused on deliberately building capability across the jurisdiction, not just ‘doing foresight’ or providing foresight services. What are they doing to build foresight capability? 

Actions and initiatives to build foresight capability

Participants outlined their work to build foresight capability in their jurisdiction. There is a diversity of approaches and platforms, but some common actions include: 

  • Proactively providing intelligence and insights on future trends from foresight exercises 
  • Supporting others with foresight analysis to feed into policy and strategy processes 
  • Providing frameworks, tools, and other collateral that public servants can use to build foresight and futures thinking into their day-to-day work 
  • Helping to build foresight literacy across the public service through learning and development sessions, workshops etc.  
  • Building networks and communities of practice for current and emerging foresight practitioners
  • Socialising foresight as a key ingredient of good policy and strategy. “It’s not good policy advice unless you have thought about long-term impacts and future environments”. 

Changing minds and mindsets – building anticipatory governance

Participants agreed that building foresight capability was about changing minds and mindsets. How do we get people to think differently and grapple with the future? How do we enable government to ‘take care of tomorrow today’?  More participatory and inclusive approaches, including bringing the public into discussions about the future, will increase the visibility, quality, and legitimacy of foresight work. It’s part of building more democratic and more anticipatory governance. 

It is notoriously difficult to demonstrate the value of foresight, due to long delays between foresight-based decisions and their outcomes, but participants discussed what success would look like if foresight were an integral part of policy, strategy and decision making. In general, a systemic approach to foresight would enable more anticipatory governance and better decision making, with a focus on the longer-term (as opposed to short-term horizons to meet the immediate demands of ministers and election cycles) and coherent and sustainable policy based on shared foundational analysis. Agencies would do their own policy work but draw on a common repository of evidence and trend analysis. We would be better able to anticipate, respond to and “not be caught out by shocks or ‘unexpected events’”. 

The degree of ambition across the participating jurisdictions is impressive. The variations in approach and stage of the building capability journey provided a basis for dialogue that generated reflection, insights and shared learning. Participants clearly appreciated the opportunity to discuss common challenges and learn from each other. We hope the lessons and experiences will be useful for other organisations and other jurisdictions.

How can ANZSOG help?

ANZSOG recognises the importance of foresight in government decision-making. Our executive education and custom education programs include masterclasses in foresighted government and socialising foresight as an integral part of policy design, policy capability and policy stewardship. We highlight developments in foresight in various articles and news items.  

Interested in a curated conversation?

Building capability across government in any relatively new area is hard. It requires determination, experimentation, and reflection. ANZSOG’s curated conversation format is designed to offer a safe place for these kinds of discussions. Get in touch if there’s a topic or jurisdiction, you’d like us to engage in a curated conversation, at e.education@anzsog.edu.au.