Governing in anticipation

By Robert Hickson 30/07/2013

A handful of governments undertake foresight in a more or less systematic way.

Those of Singapore and the UK are particularly well known.

Some Australian and NZ agencies participate in an environmental scanning network  run by Kate Delaney. CSIRO also has a futures programme.  NZ’s Ministry of Defence has it’s own small futures team.

The US doesn’t have a well-established government foresight programme, but “Project on Forward Engagement” based at George Washington University, is advocating that they should. If you read past their nationalistic jingoism (“win the future”), their report Anticipatory Governance [Pdf] has some useful arguments for why foresight is useful to Governments, and describes how to take practical steps to build it into current policy and planning programmes. Calling it “anticipatory governance” is an admission of failure of sorts in the current system, since we should expect governance (in the public and private sectors to be looking ahead).

Examples they give of where foresight could have helped identify trends are:

  • Failure of the levees during Hurricane Katrina
  • The 2010 financial crisis
  • The regulatory failures leading up to the BP oil well failure in the Gulf of Mexico
  • The Arab spring
  • Failure of the Fukushima nuclear reactor safety systems

They also don’t look at foresight in isolation, but note that two other critical components are need for “anticpatory governance”:

  • networked governance – getting government departments to work more effectively together on complex issues, and
  • feedback for applied learning – constant monitoring of policies to detect unintended effects.

The Anticipatory Governance report also points out that foresight only really works well in the public service (and elsewhere) when the big boss says “do it!” so that different agencies have to build it into their policy and planning programmes.

These messages are also echoed in a review of the UK’s horizon scanning programme released in January. The main recommendations from what is called the Day Review [Pdf] were:

  • Horizon scanning  requires a senior official in a central agency department – a “senior champion” – to lead the programme, so that there is a strong incentive for different agencies to scan nicely together. The Report nominates the Cabinet Secretary.
  •  Horizon scanning also requires an issue focus, rather than just random scanning, so that there is a clearly defined output and set of end users of the scanning work. The UK has been good at focusing on particular issues (flooding, food, identity, etc).

[I think there is a need for non-targeted scanning too, because you can’t always know what are going to be the emerging crises or opportunities. But having a focussed horizon scanning programme provides the rationale and assurance that less directed thinking and scanning over the policy horizon is a legitimate and beneficial activity]

  •  Identifying what issues to focus on needs to be collaborative so that the scope of a scanning programme is well considered.
  •  A good structure for the scanning activity, involving advisory and oversight, groups and a secretariat, needs to be developed to overcome departmental silos and ensure the scanning activity produces something that is relevant and usable.

The report also notes the need to build capability in foresight across the civil service. Outsourcing all of futures activity is unlikely to be beneficial, since it needs to link well to policy and government departments need (fore)skin in the game [couldn’t resist that one!] to take ownership of and action upon the results.

I’m working back in government now, and am keen to resurrect the futures network we built up under MoRST’s (the former Ministry of Research, Science & Technology) Futurewatch programme. There is not yet the drive from senior levels to build something like the UK horizon scanning programme here (nor the resources to create it), but I think agencies can and should start building capabilities and interest from the bottom up in the mean time. If you are in a NZ government agency and interested, contact me through the comments section (I won’t put these on-line).

It’s easy in hindsight, but some things that we probably could have seen coming if we had had a cross-agency foresight scheme running, and better dot-connecting capabilities, are:

  • The leaky building fiasco
  • The Pike River mining disaster
  • The range of adventure tourism–related fatalities and serious injuries

[The above all had signals of preceding regulatory failures that could have been deemed early warnings]

  • Poor health linked with poor housing and low incomes
  • Breaches of privacy from government information systems
  • Some biosecurity failings, such as Psa

[The problems with Novopay are an example of a failing in project planning and management rather than a lack of foresight]


What are the black swans we may still be missing, and what opportunities (economic, social, environmental) are we currently overlooking? Why not develop better anticipatory governance here?