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Taking care of tomorrow today: why foresight is an important government capability

21 March 2023

News and media


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This article by Sally Washington, ANZSOG’s Executive Director Aotearoa New Zealand is the first article in a series about foresight in government. It looks at how governments’ focus on the short-term means they are unable to identify and deal with longer term policy challenges, which also impacts their ability to invest in and build the foundations of strong and resilient future economies and societies. It examines how building foresight capability into government processes can lead to better policy in the long term. This article first appeared on the Apolitical website.

Governments need better foresight capabilities

The COVID-19 pandemic showed that few governments were able to anticipate and effectively prepare for disruptive events. Calls to improve ‘anticipatory governance’ are not new. In a report based on a survey of Prime Ministers’/Presidents’ departments in 2018, the OECD (OECD 2018) suggested governments needed to: 

  • Improve requirements for long-term economic, social and environmental reporting 
  • Embed future considerations into policy and analytical frameworks 
  • Strengthen future-focused institutions and their connections to current policy processes 
  • Improve and join up foresight capability across government 

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 or ‘policy stewardship’. 

Strategic Foresight is a systematic, intelligence-gathering, vision-building process that helps us manage uncertainty by discerning plausible alternative futures and applying the insights to present-day planning. 

How do we generate information, build knowledge, and develop the capacity to give advice that spans election cycles and the priorities of governments of the day? This is essential for tackling areas like climate change or intergenerational disadvantage. It means investing in the evidence base, expertise, and tools for anticipating and managing emerging issues, as well as the courage to shape the desired future by giving proactive advice to decision-makers. 

But what is foresight?

Foresight isn’t about predicting the future or gazing into crystal balls. Professor of Practice at McGill University, Bart Edes in his recent book offers this description: 

Strategic Foresight is a systematic, intelligence-gathering, vision-building process that helps us manage uncertainty by discerning plausible alternative futures and applying the insights to present-day planning.” 

What foresight capabilities are governments developing?

The Australia New Zealand School of Government recently hosted a ‘curated conversation’ between a number of jurisdictions, including Singapore which is considered a frontrunner in the government foresight space. Participants identified some important parts of the infrastructure for building foresight into government decision-making, including: 

  • Generating and disseminating intelligence and insights on future trends based on foresight exercises 
  • Providing frameworks, tools and other collateral to support public servants to build future thinking and foresight into their day-to-day work. 
  • Building the demand, and a commitment to futures thinking 

Generating and disseminating intelligence and insights on future trends based on foresight exercises

Governments require the capability to generate and draw out key trends or drivers of change, as well as some mechanisms or relationships to ensure others in government can pick up and use those insights and feed them into policy and strategy. There are plenty of up-to-date international trend analyses to draw on (like Arup’s drivers of change and scenarios 2050 Four Plausible futures to international organisations like the OECD’s Global Scenarios 2035, or its work on anticipatory innovation governance). Some governments are developing their own context-specific trend data. 

There are efficiencies in having a whole-of-government offering – a ‘common foresight evidence base’ – as opposed to each department reinventing the wheel. 

Examples include the UK’s trend deck prepared by the Government Office for Science, the work of Policy Horizons in Canada, and the impressive efforts of the Centre for Strategic Futures in Singapore’s Prime Minister’s office. The New South Wales government in Australia is developing a Trend Atlas as an interactive, strategic intelligence platform where users can access rich insights on local and global trends. It has already grown to well over 1000 NSW Government sector users and is linked to a broader system data strategy (ANZSOG, 2022). 

There are pockets of foresight capability scattered around many jurisdictions. There are efficiencies in having a whole-of-government offering – a ‘common foresight evidence base’ – as opposed to each department reinventing the wheel. Portfolio-specific insights can be built from that common base. 

Providing frameworks, tools, and other collateral

Public servants need support and the right tools to build future thinking and foresight analysis into their day-to-day work. All public servants don’t need to become expert futurists. But they can learn to be intelligent customers of foresight data and insights and aim to bring a futures mindset into their work. There is a range of techniques and methods for foresight, some of which are simple but powerful, such as horizon scanning, scenarios, use of the futures wheel, and back-casting. The New Zealand Policy Project website has a useful explainer as part of its policy methods toolbox. 

Foresight is a key ingredient in good policy and strategy. Participants in the ANZSOG curated conversation agreed. As one noted: “It’s not good policy advice unless you have thought about long-term impacts and future environments.” 

Building the demand – and the supply. Who’s responsible for building foresight into government and where should capabilities sit?

Insights from foresight exercises need to be “useful and used”. Building the demand for foresight is a multi-pronged challenge, including leaning into the ‘demand side’ and the current incentives on politicians and other senior decision-makers to focus on the here and now and not what might happen later under someone else’s watch. Some governments have specific ‘commitment devices’ to ensure future considerations are linked to policy deliberations, such as Wales’ Future Generations Commissioner and related legislation. In Aotearoa New Zealand, the Public Service Act requires every chief executive of a government department to produce a Long-term Insights Briefing (LTIB) once every three years. The recently elected Australian federal government has indicated it will do something similar. The LTIB requirements in Aotearoa also include consultation with the public. A future article will outline the LTIB process, pitfalls and progress to date. 

In the absence of a specific institutional home for foresight and futures, central agencies (Prime Ministers’/Premiers’ offices and the like) and organisations at the interface between politicians and the public service are well-placed to navigate the demand for, and supply of, foresight intelligence and capabilities, including socialising foresight as part of anticipating and managing medium and long-term risk. Like capabilities to generate and drive innovation in the public sector (and in the private sector for that matter), foresight work needs to be embedded enough to ensure that it influences day-to-day policy and strategic direction, but at a suitable arm’s length so as not get bogged down in business as usual. Finding the right balance – and place in the system – to achieve impact and independence is a challenge. 

A participatory approach – a better future for all

A participatory approach, 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 as well as more anticipatory governance. While there are headwinds, a global pandemic, as well as looming crises like climate change, ageing populations and intergenerational inequality, show that governments need to develop capabilities as well as a commitment to take care of tomorrow today.