Few in the public sector foresaw Covid-19, what are we not seeing next?

Image: Nine Koepfer (Unsplash)

Aotearoa/New Zealand needs structured foresight, but a well-resourced foresight and risk ecosystem must be funded to support public sector CEOs in producing newly mandated long-term insights briefings.

Long-term insights briefings

The Public Service Act 2020 requires every departmental chief executive to publish a long-term insights briefing (LTIB) independent of ministers every three years, starting in 2022. These LTIBs should include medium and long-term risks.

The briefings are to be tabled in Parliament so all political parties will have access to their content. Public consultation and extensive feedback is expected. The briefings should be think-pieces that can enhance public debate.

On 1 September 2021, Professor Girol Karacaoglu of Victoria University of Wellington chaired a webinar discussion on these LTIBs. Speaking were:

  • Wendy McGuinness (founder and CEO of the McGuinness Institute)
  • Roger Dennis (foresight and innovation consultant)
  • David Skilling (founding Director of Landfall Strategy Group)

Wendy McGuinness

McGuinness outlined the history of foresight in Aotearoa/New Zealand, noting the previous existence of a Commission for the Future (disestablished in 1982), which she would like to see returned.

She spoke of the purpose of long-term briefings, they should:

  • Include foresight and learnings from hindsight
  • Be filled with curiosity
  • Question the status quo

But McGuinness also highlighted ways in which the LTIBs could fail to deliver their intended benefits. CEOs can be busy, shy, humble, uncertain, not foresight experts, risk averse, and desire political safety. Such traits could obstruct the process.

The briefings might be delegated downward, thereby failing to tap into CEOs insights. They might be postponed, rushed, lack sufficient consultation and collaboration.

Roger Dennis

Roger Dennis noted the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) nature of the world. This state of affairs generates a lot of noise which we must distil.

Past clear examples of inattention blindness underscore the importance of foresight:

  • Nokia had one billion customers in 2006, but failed to attend to the threat of the iPhone.
  • The World Economic Forum’s ‘top 10’ global risks did not include pandemic disease

David Skilling

David Skilling highlighted some small developed countries that have good foresight processes. Aotearoa/New Zealand could perhaps learn from Singapore, Denmark, or Finland.

New Zealand is a unique context, but we don’t have to reinvent the wheel at every step and we should approach LTIBs as an international learning and collaboration exercise.

Skilling distinguished three time horizons, the immediate term, the 5-10 year term and the decades-long term, arguing that the medium horizon is of crucial importance, but the right questions must be posed.

Crucially for LTIBs to succeed, Skilling believes there needs to be Ministerial demand for the insights. Though webinar audience members thought demand could and should come from the public, iwi, DHBs, NGOs and so forth.

In contrast to McGuinness, Skilling thought we should avoid relegating important foresight work to a Commission, and we should build strategic capability across government agencies.

My interpretation

There are many reasons why LTIBs (and similar foresight processes) are essential. Such processes can help identify black elephants (a mix between a black swan and the elephant in the room – think COVID-19), they can help guide big important policy decisions to which they relate.

This is particularly important where there are irreversible decisions, such as decisions pertaining to environmental capital. They can help identify and mitigate large-scale risk (think risks as diverse as climate, biodiversity, biological threats, cyber threats, AI, demographic change, antibiotic resistance, workforce, even volcanism at global choke points), provided they are accompanied by a map of broad strokes solution space to scaffold debate and action.

However, LTIBs will not emerge that are fit for purpose unless there is a sufficient eco-system of foresight resources available to CEOs to aid in their production. Additionally, the LTIBs will not have the desired impact unless they can be digested, aggregated and issues prioritised by a sufficiently competent and apolitical central entity.

Such an entity needs to be deeply involved in the process, guiding CEOs with expertise and providing resources so that LTIBs are aligned with current foresight methods, cover appropriate time horizons, include relevant risks, and are sufficiently creative and curious, or we will merely end up with more of the same. Public, transparent consultation with diverse experts in academia, industry and the NGO sector is of absolute importance.

Part of the aim of such consultation should be to ensure the right questions are indeed being answered. The World Economic Forum’s risk report that omitted pandemics prevented the right questions being asked moving forward.

As Roger Dennis noted, an approximate answer to the right question is better than certainty on the wrong one. People tend to refine what they already know rather than casting the net wider. Swiss emergency management demonstrated this during the cold war with more and more precise models of nuclear fall-out, and an infrastructure programme obsessively focused on underground shelters:

[W]hen looking back at the broader civil defence programme of the period, it is evident that such calculative fastidiousness did not extend to weighing which threats to its security the Swiss nation should pay attention to in the first place. Absent at this point in time are explicit calculations weighing the risk of nuclear war against a plurality of risks. Where evidence of comparative assessment is to be found, the calculative practices at play appear rather loose, and the object of comparison rather limited” (Deville 2018).

Such myopia is dangerous, as New Zealand’s influenza-only pandemic plan demonstrated through 2020, along with a risk register focussed on short time horizons. What is New Zealand’s plan for volcanism at a global logistics choke point? Logistics are a hot topic in a post-Covid world. Or something much more certain and inevitable like the Superannuation burden of our demographic trajectory?

Such fundamental decisions as what to include and exclude from LTIBs must not prevent appropriate public debate on resourcing and prioritisation. I say include it all, in iterative fashion if the task is too great in a first pass. And then facilitate expert debate and prioritisation of the highlights.  

Marketing needed

A programme of marketing is now needed. Stakeholders should be actively primed to give input to the LTIBs, we should expect to be asked. The briefings themselves should be open to wide peer review.

Wendy McGuinness identified five major foresight think pieces that already exist in the public sector, but that these often fly under the radar. Publicization of the LTIBs when they emerge is critical. Ideally, they should be living documents, with a web-portal where stakeholders can leave feedback in ongoing fashion for the next iteration.

It is my view that without critique, peer-review, public input and societal authorization, these reports may simply serve the status quo.

Moral assumptions should be explicit

The reports should explicitly state the values framework within which they are operating. Why were some future possibilities prioritised for elaboration and not others? They should be accompanied by appendices of topics and themes not included, with an explanation of why not. It is one thing to fail to foresee, but to foresee but ignore must be justified to the public. This is a major shortcoming of one of the existing tools for management of future risks, the National Risk Register, which is classified and not open to scrutiny.

An ecosystem is needed with central aggregation

Unlike other countries, New Zealand lacks a surrounding ecosystem of think-tanks, universities, and large companies developing long-term views on a range of subjects.

For the LTIBs to be done well, to overcome siloed orthodoxy and cognitive biases, support for CEOs will be needed. This support needs to be central and apolitical. Commissions are not sufficiently central to the fundamental mechanics of the public sector, can be ignored, poorly funded or disestablished. Central entities such as DPMC, though apolitical in name exhibit features of politicisation, and a lack of transparency.

A Parliamentary Commissioner, with a well-resourced office of talent, answerable to Parliament (with Select Committee oversight), could be tasked with supporting foresight and risk aspects of these processes. Given the major decisions, some irreversible, about the future that could follow the aggregation of LTIBs, there is value in investing in this capability.

The first round of these reports should be written by experienced multidisciplinary teams, include the possible impacts of extreme risks, as well as a search for as yet unidentified problems. High-level mitigation strategies should be proposed for the public to debate.

LTIBs could be a step towards a very positive future for Aotearoa/New Zealand, but only if executed well.