Using strategic foresight to support policymaking
16th June 2023
Authors: Jessica Sprague-Jones, Jacqueline Counts, Center for Public Partnerships and Research.
We at the Center for Public Partnerships and Research, University of Kansas, have established long-term relationships with state agencies that contribute to short-term improvements in the status quo. We have also held the space to explore long-term solutions that seed transformational system changes. In our previous blog—What they don’t teach you in school about working with policymakers, we shared four lessons. In this blog, we share our approach to meeting the demands of the now, staying a step ahead to ask the questions of tomorrow, and taking steps today to prepare for multiple futures.
The pandemic exposed the failure of our social services. Many of us were called upon to respond to immediate needs, while also needing to anticipate what was to come. Operating under austere budget conditions and navigating clunky, slow, and constraining procurement systems has squashed the public worker’s spirit to innovate and fail. The time it takes to get something through the system and the fear of the ‘audit’ makes people risk and effort averse. We’ve been advocating and making do for so long and from such a place of scarcity, that the wings of our imagination have been clipped, and we collectively aren’t prepared to seize this moment of abundance in funding and the opening to do the unthinkable in social services.
Policymakers, like most of us, are often trying to address problems of the present and/or the recent past. This approach engenders short-term and small-scale solutions to optimise a system that isn’t working for most people. We (as researchers and as a society) need a different lens to address the challenges of post-normal times. The radical uncertainty and contradictions we are navigating impose urgency and upheaval of traditional social responses. For transformational systems’ change, we need to vision further into the future to understand and make productive strategic choices today. Strategic foresight and futures’ methods extend our capacities in this way. In short, futures thinking is a “set of strategic and creative tools that help you anticipate how the future might be different, and why” (Dunagan, 2022). The approach helps us be ready for change, feel more control in what happens next, and to make lasting positive changes in our own lives, in our communities, and in society.
Our approach leans into the responsibility and reality of policymakers to address problems of the present and optimise services. We must also orient policymakers to the bigger, long-term forces that need to be considered, such as climate change and extreme weather conditions, cyber-security risks and reliance on digital systems, deepening social isolation and despair and concern about the outlook of the world, and so on. Without this kind of focus, we will miss the big issues that will shape our lives in the future and will be mentally and physically unprepared to respond or address the effects of climate change, the impact of rapidly changing technologies on our work, family, and civic lives, and changing patterns in marriage, fertility, and family formation, to name a few.
Researchers must expand the lens to include a bigger picture and help decision-makers see into multiple futures—both positive and negative. What’s more, we must lean into taking risks and filling the void of information of what to do. If researchers dominate the sphere of data analysis, but aren’t willing to suggest what to do about it, someone else will step into that space. The future depends on our active engagement.
The Center for Public Partnerships and Research specialises in systems change and in finding innovative solutions to complex social problems.
This blog is part 3 of 4.
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