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Harnessing strategic foresight in the public sector

While governments need to adopt an integrated approach to envisioning and planning, it is also imperative that they institutionalize the process at both executive and legislative levels.
By Dr. Santhi Kanoktanaporn

29 November 2017

Remember all the times when you were a high-school student and asked what you wanted to become, the profession you wanted to take up, or the career you aimed to build? With several attractive options, it is usually a tough task striking off the least preferred alternative. But once the choices are filtered and there is clarity about the end goal, things start falling into place.

Of course, there might be different issues or challenges of finance, securing admission to the university of choice, and the like to deal with, but with the objective clearly visible, people are usually able to identify the uncertainties and adopt strategies to deal with them. It is, however, worth noting that the decision or filtering process is based on the likelihood of certain possible, plausible, probable, and preferable outcomes as well as anticipation of opportunities and threats that may arise in future. The important point is that once the future has been visualized, one can work toward making it happen.

The situation is not much different when planning for the public sector or in the case of governments, except that the scale is millions, and in a few cases, billions times larger and may require a much more complex approach to planning. While you might be already aware of it, I would still like to share a story from the early 1990s when, after a long apartheid regime, talks on the transfer of power in South Africa had started to emerge as a reality.

With the outbreak of civil war looming, a group of influential South Africans was roped in by Shell’s expert in scenario planning Adam Kkahane to brainstorm on the possible scenarios for the transition. The different groups engaged in the exercise came up with 30 scenarios after the first session. These were categorized over several additional rounds of brainstorming sessions, and the group finally arrived at four scenarios to explain a plausible approach to the transition. Finally, the group rejected three approaches because the scenarios showed that they could go wrong and decided to adopt the “flight of the flamingo” approach that offered inclusive democracy and growth.

The rest is history. Strategic foresight helped ensure a much less-painful transfer of power in South Africa and over the years the country emerged as one of the strongest economies on the African continent.

Building strategic foresight capability
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines strategy as “a careful plan or method for achieving a particular goal, usually over a long period of time.” Similarly, foresight is defined as the ability to see what will or might happen in the future. In simple terms, strategic foresight is the ability to identify the deep driving forces that may impact, alter, and even upset the apple cart and visualize the business environment of the future so that an informed decision on what needs to be done in the mid- to long term can be taken today.

In today’s fast-changing environment, technology is disrupting every sector, including the way governments work. Add to this the challenges of aging populations, climate change, the dynamic geopolitical situation, and several new social trends that are constantly adding to the complexity of economic planning. These shifting goalposts can have a direct bearing on economic development strategies and impact long-term productivity gains. The world therefore cannot hold onto the old perceptions of economic, productivity, and business models, making it imperative for APO members to prepare themselves for the unpredictable.

The main challenge facing governments is how to reconcile the desire to achieve high economic growth while balancing environmental and societal needs amid global uncertainties. Using strategic foresight, governments can help their countries navigate through these economic, environmental, and social uncertainties by anticipating and preparing for the desired futures.

However, this is easier said than done.

While governments need to be forward thinking, acquire adequate competencies, and design effective foresight mapping processes to prepare for unforeseen changes in environments and circumstances, they also need to create policy frameworks to incentivize and motivate innovators and entrepreneurs to harness shifting market conditions and risks.

At the APO, we have adopted the new Strategy Development Approach that incorporates foresight capacity building to help member countries become future-ready. Using a modern, structured, strategic planning approach, member countries will be able to anticipate emerging trends, identify their driving forces affecting economies and organizations, and develop plausible scenarios of how the contextual environment may change over a certain period. However, to effectively develop their foresight capacity, countries will need to step out of the traditional planning approach and adopt scenario-based planning.

In a hyperconnected global economy, no country can afford to draft its future plans by only looking inward. For strategic foresight, organizations and economies will have to move from identifying the driving forces within and beyond national analyses to identifying global trends that can impact domestic market conditions. Economies will also need to adopt a systematic approach to take a helicopter view of social, technological, environmental, economic, and political (STEEP) factors, including the demographic and policy aspects at a global level to get a clearer vision of the potential future.

APO member countries will also need to institutionalize the process at the executive and legislative levels. This will require bureaucrats to capture knowledge, share information, and practice anticipatory thinking at every level of public administration. While the culture of foresight requires a shift toward creating learning organizations and breaking away from the “silo” or sectoral mindset to a more integrated approach of envisioning and planning, it will also require political commitment from diverse groups and adversaries, without which the famous South African Mont Fleur Scenarios could not have been created.

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