Monday, July 6, 2020
Interview with Stephen Sanford, Director, GAO Center for Strategic Foresight

Strategic foresight is “a planning tool to develop the critical thinking, planning, and management competencies for considering the impact of long-term uncertainties on near-term decision making.” [World Futures Rev. 2018; 25: 1–25]. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) sees strategic foresight as a method for systematically considering a longer time horizon and broader scope of issues than other forms of planning. According to OMB, integrating strategic foresight in the planning process also facilitates a systems approach to problem solving and may help an agency better prepare for future threats or take early advantage of emerging opportunities.” Examples of strategic foresight methodologies include scanning, trend analysis, and scenario planning.  

Stephen Sanford, Director of the Center for Strategic Foresight at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) joined me on The Business of Government Hour to discuss the evolution of strategic foresight in government, how it can help leaders prepare for the future, and the mission and work of GAO’s Center for Strategic Foresight. Here is brief synopsis of our conversation, highlighting key insights.

On the Mission of the Center for Strategic Foresight

GAO is a legislative branch agency that supports the U.S. Congress directly in meeting its constitutional responsibilities to help improve performance and ensure oversight over the federal government. With such a critical mission, foresight has been part of GAO’s DNA for decades. For years, the agency’s strategic plan relied on elements of trend analysis as a way to position both the agency and the nation in a broader strategic context.

With that as our backdrop, it was decided to place a more formal emphasis on strategic foresight as a capacity and creating the Center was a step in that direction. In FY2018, GAO’s Executive Committee under the leadership of Comptroller General, Gene Dodaro, approved the charter for the Center for Strategic Foresight with the goal to enhance our ability to analyze current and projected trends and their potential impact. To do this activity not only for GAO, but also more broadly across government.

The Center now serves as the agency’s principal hub for identifying, monitoring, and analyzing emerging issues facing policymakers. It operates within GAO’s Office of Strategic Planning and External Liaison, under the leadership of James-Christian Blockwood, playing an important role of analyzing trends that will affect federal agencies and programs now and in the future. This reflects GAO’s mandate to provide Congress with reliable, fact-based information for overseeing federal agencies and programs. 

On Leading Strategic Foresight at GAO

I’m actually dual-hatted at GAO. I lead both the strategic foresight programs as the Center Director and I also lead GAO’s strategic planning. This is a bit unique having both the strategic foresight and the strategic planning functions in the same office. Doing this presents some real advantages because we are able to infuse foresight into our planning activities.

My main focus as Center director is making sure we are looking into the future, thinking about potential future opportunities, potential risks, potential new areas and new ways of doing things that will help the agency ultimately deliver on its mission more effectively. It’s a great job. One of the best in government. I’ve tremendous support from the agency and its senior leadership.

On Being Creative

We are always thinking: how can we do more with limited resources? Resource constraints requires one to be creative along with being creative one must build partnerships both across the agency and outside the agency. Foresight work is not something you can do by yourself without talking with people without building alliances and partnerships within your agency and across government. You need to be out engaging others. A key to our success is engagement and partnering with others to understand their needs, how we can help them, and building partnerships outside the agency to bolster our ability to do foresight. The Center gives us a platform to work with experts in foresight outside of our own agency. Our non-resident fellows program provides us access to experts in foresight from around the world – a brain trust we can tap into as we think about our foresight mission at GAO.

I have also had the opportunity of incorporating design thinking or human-centered design into our foresight mission. This involved getting my team trained in human-centered design techniques. Foresight as a discipline helps us think about the future and identify new opportunities. Design thinking is good at helping you create things in the present. Bringing these two mindsets together provides a valuable bridge for taking us from the present into the future. Marrying the tools of strategic foresight with design thinking methods has been both exciting and rewarding.  We are done several projects around GAO where we have used those two different methodologies quite effectively.

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