Foresight: A Tool for a Proactive Government

Someone on the Hill once told me that Congress was “constitutionally reactive.” That is, Congress and the law would always lag behind society, and the system was intentionally designed that way. The current rapid pace of change — in our culture and particularly with technology — only makes the gap between policy and our lives more glaring. 

Perhaps some gap is inevitable, but there are tools that can help Congress consider the big picture and approach policymaking proactively. Government “foresight” is one of those tools and is used throughout the executive branch and the world. Its use in the legislature has lagged behind the other branches, even though House Rules have provided since 1975 that each standing committee “shall review and study on a continuing basis… future research and forecasting on subjects within its jurisdiction.”

Foresight can “improve public decision making in the present by systematically considering a longer time horizon and a broader scope of issues and possibilities.” Foresight is not about predicting the future. It is a tool to provide “early warnings of emerging threats and opportunities, methods to test assumptions and strategies, and a way to see a bigger picture of how problems interact and decisions produce unintended consequences.”

Simply put, foresight provides long-range thinking and methods to work through different scenarios to produce better policy choices today. The World Futures Review dedicated an issue to Government Foresight in 2019, including an excellent article that reviewed foresight practices in 19 federal agencies. See our summary.

The federal government’s long-range strategic thinking created much of the nation’s economic, technological, and social progress. Congress acted proactively with the GI Bill and also by establishing land grant universities, the transcontinental railroad, interstate highway system, the Panama Canal, and research in military technologies like the internet and GPS. By way of example, after WWII, the country had to absorb about 16 million veterans into an economy that was ramping down from war production. The GI Bill served 12,400,000 of these veterans, helping to create the 1950s middle class and build out the higher education system. 

We should be using foresight to prepare for automation, environmental issues, national security challenges, and demographic shifts. In 2006, GAO’s Comptroller General noted the “need to plan ahead for the possibility of a global influenza pandemic similar to the one in 1918.” We could have worked through response scenarios, health care systems and data needs with foresight methods. 

Foresight is a useful tool that can create better policy choices and enhance civic participation. Congress should track foresight efforts in the executive branch and increase its own foresight capacity (ideally by creating its own internal foresight office). This will provide a system to better respond to modern challenges and increase citizen involvement in our country’s future. 

Additional Resources:

The World Futures Review dedicated a special issue in September 2019 to foresight in the executive and judicial branch, as well as international practice. The articles are excellent. 

The Legislative Branch has its own Center for Strategic Foresight established by the GAO in 2018. The GAO Comptroller General gave a speech in 2006 before the World Future Society describing 21st Century Challenges (including the need to prepare for a global pandemic). 

NAPA provides an overview of “The Long Road to Strategic Foresight in the Federal Government” (August 2016) and examples of foresight in the Legislative Branch (sadly, dating from 1974 to 1985 while the Executive Branch examples are much more recent).

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) provides a good overview of foresight and issued a 12 page report in October 2019 on “Strategic Foresight for Better Policies.” 

The Federal Foresight Community of Interest is a forum for federal agencies to share best practices (about 19 are involved, including GAO and the Library of Congress). They have quarterly meetings and a newsletter.