Foresight in the Federal Government

In “Strategic Foresight in the Federal Government: A Survey of Methods, Resources and Institutional Arrangements,”[1] authors Joseph Greenblott, Thomas O’Farrell, Robert Olson, and Beth Burchard analyzed foresight activities in 19 federal agencies (18 in the Executive Branch and 1 in the Legislative Branch). This article summarizes the findings (all numbers and quotes are from that article).

While approaches varied by agency, some common themes emerged.[2] Overall, Defense and Intelligence agencies seemed to have the strongest (and best funded) foresight practices.[3] Foresight in the Executive Branch is much further developed than in the Legislative Branch. 

Staffing. Most agencies have 0.5 to 2 full time employees dedicated to foresight activities, but this staff may spend a small or large amount of their time on foresight. Agencies tend to use contractor support, but caution against overreliance as it externalizes foresight efforts. Budgets beyond the costs of federal salaries generally range from $500,000 to over $2 million. The Office of Net Assessment (an internal DOD think tank created in 1973) is an outlier with an annual budget of $15 to $20 million. Aside from dedicated staff, agency efforts tend to have small core groups of 5 to 9 people to represent various parts of the agency and create a “Foresight Ecosystem.” 

External Participation. Agencies often involve staff and managers from other agencies as well as non-federal experts in foresight activities, creating advisory groups that may include as many as 200 people. External and community partners help with scanning (one of the methods discussed below). FEMA, the EPA, and the CIA have relied on local and state governments, nonprofits, community groups, the private sector, universities, and think tanks. “Anticipatory Democracy” is the process of involving citizens in foresight efforts.[4

Methods. Horizon scanning and scenario planning are the most frequently used methods. Horizon (aka environmental) scanning looks for trends and emerging developments in both a specific field as well as broader societal trends. These may be threats or opportunities and focus on the margins of current thinking. For example, a pandemic would have been at the margins of current thinking several months ago, yet working through a pandemic scenario would have enabled a better response and tested the existing systems and assumptions. 16 of the 19 agencies in the survey conduct horizon scanning. Scenario planning uses information about trends and possibilities to create plausible alternative futures. These alternatives do not predict the future, but are used to train participants to adapt to change and clarify priorities. Again, in the pandemic scenario, the exercise would not have predicted a pandemic at a certain time, but it would allow participants to work through the scenario.

There are other, less common methods. For example, agencies use Implications Wheel exercises to consider second and third order effects. If we impose social distancing, what are the economic and psychological implications? Backcasting is a type of reverse engineering where an agency defines their future state and works backwards to create policies and programs to create it. The FBI used anonymous surveys to pool expert opinion, and the National Intelligence Council tested underlying assumptions in prior reports. Several agencies created a Community of Practice to involve people throughout the organization. 

As examples of methods used by some of the 19 agencies, the VA and Coast Guard do an intensive round of scanning every four years as part of a planning cycle. Generally, fewer than 25 people will be on a scanning team.[5] This scanning process produces a large number of issues that are then winnowed down by a smaller group. The VA narrowed from hundreds of items to twenty, and the EPA narrowed from eighty to eight. In contrast, the Marines created a single-base scenario and then used two variants that accelerated certain trends (such as water scarcity and biohacking). In 2015, the Marines worked with science fiction writers to create engaging narratives and posted them online. Each agency usually forms 3 to 5 scenarios (viewed as the upper limit for what a group can consider). These scenarios may be used in internal working groups, war games, or to improve strategic planning. The VA learned that its initial scenarios were too internally focused, missing external trends that impacted operations. 

Timeline. Most agencies look 20 to 40 years into the future. The CIA uses a 3 to 5 year timeline due to rapid changes in technology, while the Forest Service uses 50 to 100 years for timber projections and 150 years for growth and yield models. Whatever the time frame, these long views of time are meant to help the agencies make decisions over the next five years. 

Agency Integration. “There is no standard organization location for a foresight function in Federal agencies.” It may vary from “near the top” to removed from decision makers with most agencies falling somewhere in between. In the successful national foresight programs in Canada and Singapore, they are located “off to the side at the top.” It is important for the agency to “own” the foresight efforts. That is, a foresight office should be internal and integrated with the agency. If Congress created a foresight office, it should be internal to Congress and integrated with leadership, as leadership drives congressional action. “One of the biggest challenges for foresight groups across the government is linking strategic-level insights and guidance with resources and policy decision making.” 

Leadership Support. All 19 agencies agreed “it is crucial to involve and effectively communicate with an organization’s leadership,” but agencies took different approaches. The VA held a workshop for leadership in each round of its process. Some agencies provide foresight training for senior executives, while FEMA designated senior career executives as “Priority Champions.” The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency held a full-day off-site meeting with the agency’s director and senior staff. Those involved with foresight efforts at the CIA are longtime employees with close relationships with senior leadership. Leadership turnover can impair support for foresight activities. 

Common Themes. Many agencies wanted a “hub” (potentially OMB) within government to coordinate and prioritize foresight efforts. NAPA (the National Academy of Public Administration) recommended creating such a hub in its 2016 Presidential Transition report. The survey’s “Broad Observations” are worth quoting:

  • “Strategic foresight activity is increasing across the Federal government, but is not fully institutionalized.”
  • “Individual federal agencies are in very different places on a ‘maturity scale’ of foresight efforts.”
  • “There is a widely shared aspiration by interviewees to expand the quality and influence of foresight efforts.”
  • “The FFCOI [Federal Foresight Community of Interest] has been a significant factor in the growth of foresight in the Federal government.”
  • “There is no standard organization and location for a foresight function.”
  • “Horizon scanning and scenario-based planning are the most widely used foresight methodologies.”
  • “Defense organizations often integrate forecasts and scenarios into a war game format.”
  • “Different foresight programs use different methods to connect with leadership.” The survey notes for some agencies “this is a critical area where improvement is needed.”
  • “There is agreement among interviewees on the importance of looking ahead beyond conventional planning horizons.”
  • “All Federal foresight programs share the underlying assumption that it is impossible to predict ‘the future’ and that human action can shape the future to some extent.”

[1] World Futures Review 2019, Vol 11(3) 245-266.

[2] The authors conducted interviews with 19 federal agencies.

[3] “The challenges of institutionalizing foresight in civilian agencies may also be exacerbated by their smaller budgets relative to defense and intelligence agencies.” Id. at 261.

[4] “[P]ast public foresight efforts have often fallen short in terms of involving the public.” Introduction to Special Issue at 184. See also “The History and Future of Anticipatory Democracy and Foresight,” Clem Bezold, World Futures Review 2019, Vol 11(3) 273-282.

[5] The VA involved 80 to 100 people while the Air Force Strategic Studies Group involved participants from each of the Air Force’s 150 organizations.