The United States is confronted by a new class of complex, fast-moving challenges that are outstripping its capacity to respond and "win the future." These challenges are crosscutting: they simultaneously engage social, economic, and political systems. They require measures that extend the horizon of awareness deeper into the future, improve capacity to orchestrate both planning and action in ways that mobilize the full capacities of government, and speed up the process of detecting error and propagating success. The result is anticipatory governance.1
Anticipatory governance offers a set of concepts about how to deal with the twin phenomena of acceleration and complexity, which together threaten the coherence of American governance. Various Cabinet-level agencies—most notably the Department of Defense—have internal planning systems that approximate anticipatory governance. No such system is available at the national level. As a result, government is increasingly confined to dealing with full-blown crises and is losing its capacity to design policies that enable America to shape the future. There is no mechanism at the national level for bringing foresight and policy into an effective relationship. The absence of such a system impairs the ability of the government to think and act strategically. The cost of this impairment to the Nation now rises to a level that threatens national security as conventionally defined, and even more so when it is thought of in expansive terms that go to national strength, as opposed to the more limited requirements of national defense.
Faith in U.S. ability to shape the future has been a constant factor in the development of the Nation. As events continue to outpace us, the evident loss of that faith will have serious implications for our ability to continue to find common cause among ourselves. This has a potentially devastating impact on not only our domestic existence as a state, but also our behavior within the international system. There will be substitutes for American leadership, but none is likely to be premised on the existence of a win-win approach for all competitors. Any other approach, based on zero-sum thinking, will prevent rational action to preserve the future of our species. The stakes are high.
This is a problem that has deep political roots. It is, however, also a problem that reflects poorly designed systems for planning and execution.
The political dimension of this problem is hard to deal with, given that every policy issue is automatically translated into partisan terms. Deep reform of the Federal system is therefore unlikely because it cannot occur without enabling legislation. Given the political climate, it is hard to imagine Congress passing a well-designed, bipartisan omnibus bill providing for major alterations in the way government operates, even though it is sorely needed. The best chance is to make limited improvements in the operation of executive branch systems, hoping to leverage these as ways to improve the performance of government as a whole. Fortunately, we do not need enabling legislation to get started, or to destroy the existing system to develop anticipatory governance. Much of the needed new capacity exists in latent form in the executive branch.
The elements of anticipatory governance can be put into place efficiently, quickly, and by means specifically suited to Presidential authority. Presidents already have substantial legal and customary authority to arrange the workings of their own offices—comprising the whole of the White House—as they see fit. The Executive Office of the President (EOP) is thus the necessary locus for innovative rethinking of the systems by which it is served. Presidents have at their disposal the means to create a core mechanism by using existing elements of the Executive Office to operate as an overall steering body. The Chief of Staff, National Security Council (NSC) staff, deputies committees, National Economic Council (NEC), Office of Management and Budget (OMB), individual agency policy planning staffs, and the layer of now famous czars can be used collectively as a means to ensure overall coherence. To some extent, they are already used for this purpose, but mostly on an ad hoc basis rather than systematically. It is possible that these existing authorities can be fashioned into a faster, nimbler whole-of-government process that can be used to correct our strategic myopia and secure America's global place in the 21st century.
Acceleration and Complexity
Our era is destined to be marked by accelerating deep change. Major social change is accelerating at a rate fast enough to challenge the adaptive capacity of whole societies, including our own. Our national expectations of the future were set a generation ago by the baby boomers' exaggerated sense of entitlement. The future, however, will not be an extension of the past. A new normal awaits us, and it is likely to have rough edges. It is increasingly dangerous to make policy only in the short term or to arbitrarily diminish the universe of possibilities by ideologically limiting policy choices.
President Barack Obama talks with advisors in Oval Office before phone call with President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon to discuss situation in Cote d'lvoire
The White House (Pete Souza)
To deal with acceleration, we must begin installing new approaches to organization that feature much greater sensitivity to faint signals about alternative futures, and which enable us to respond to these with increased flexibility and speed. Bureaucracies are procrustean in responding to new problems by chopping them to fit old concepts. We need a form of management that could be called protean that is able to change its shape rapidly to match evolving challenges. If we do not find it, we risk being swamped by events and succumbing to systems failure.
Acceleration is accompanied by increasing complexity, which inevitably has the effect of eroding the customary boundaries that differentiate bureaucratic concepts and the missions that are based on them. Modern policy issues are complex phenomena, not linear. Linear problems can be broken down into components, and then sequentially administered and resolved. Complex problems are the result of concurrent interactions among multiple systems of events. They do not lend themselves to permanent solutions, but instead tend to morph into new problems, even as the result of our interventions to deal with them. They do not automatically move toward stable outcomes, but instead can exhibit highly disproportionate consequences in response to relatively small changes of condition. Complex challenges cannot be permanently resolved because they continuously mutate. Instead, they must be constantly monitored and managed.
We assume that for every problem in politics there is a unique solution. Under linear theory, change in input will give a proportionate change in output; there are no interruptions or collapses to a curve. Complexity more accurately describes the way human affairs transpire. Everything is interacting with everything else. However, it is difficult for us to analyze in terms that do not reduce the reality. If we pretend the problem is not complex, we fail to understand what is really happening. What is needed is a robust effort to keep track of how things alter, and particularly knowing when to fold the cards on an obsolete policy. We tend to follow what we have implemented to the bitter end; we do not change course until the costs become impossible to ignore. Complexity has become a bumper sticker, but it has real and profound meaning.
Complex priorities are combinations of complex challenges that are urgent, thematically related, interactive, and resistant to treatment in isolation.2 Complex priorities form systems that must be managed concurrently. Short-range goals must be examined against long-term objectives. Complex priorities cannot be dealt with by means of linear approaches based on individual elements of government. No single agency possesses the authority or the expertise needed to manage them. The traditional interagency system provides only intermittent coordination of effort among executive branch agencies, and therefore is unlikely to handle complex priorities successfully.
Complex priorities require an integrated approach to the formulation and execution of policy. In the end, responsibilities have to be broken down and assigned to individual agencies. But at some point, the efforts of all these agencies have to be coordinated with reference to an evolving central concept. The array of agencies engaged should depend on the nature of the priority. Certain kinds of issues transcend the capacities of individual agencies, and require such a broad spectrum of collaborators as to become whole-of-governance challenges. This does not mean that every agency is simultaneously engaged, or that all are engaged at the same level of intensity. It does mean that no part of the government is considered an island unto itself; that as circumstances demand, conscious arrangements of agencies and missions will be deployed.
Broad Scope Definition of National Security
If we are overtaken by the accelerating rate of change and increasing complexity, our national security will be jeopardized. We must therefore also broaden our concept of national security and upgrade systems for making and monitoring national security policy. The concept of national security is often conflated with that of national defense, but it is actually a much broader term, requiring a far deeper integration of domestic and international policy than has been practiced in American governance. The fundamental characteristic of national security is that it is complex—not linear—and that systems of governance based on the assumption of linearity must be redesigned.
National security absolutely begins with the ability to defend the Nation against its enemies, both foreign and domestic. But more is needed. We are in the presence of new forces, rapidly accelerating in speed and growing in power. To deal with these forces, we need to overhaul the concept of national security and the apparatus used to sustain it. The concept of national security has expanded from time to time in response to new threats, including terrorism after the September 11 attacks, and only recently to include economic security after the 2008–2009 financial crisis. It remains, however, mainly focused on the elimination of physical danger in the immediate present. It pushes away longer range concerns having to do with the foundations of our national power. These "discounted" challenges are pressing for acceptance as officially recognized major components of national security. Included among them are maintenance of technological leadership, maintenance of economic leadership, and maintenance of global moral leadership (that is, soft power).
An appropriately expanded definition of national security would:
While many people respond favorably, at least in principle, to the idea that the scope of national security should be broadened, others oppose the idea on grounds that it is not actionable. Typically, they say that national security is inherently limited to the core mission of protecting the United States against violent attack and subversion and that widening the scope of the term will destroy its meaning and create something impossible to administer. They argue that it is impossible to predict the longer range future, or even to make good long-range forecasts, so there is no point in attempting to couple policy to systematically researched foresight. The political system in any event discounts the future in favor of current priorities. Even if we could reform the executive branch, such changes would be pointless unless the Congress reforms itself, which it will not. The bureaucracy will resist and ultimately wait out any serious redesign of its functions.
National security, however, is manifestly a broader concept than national defense, encompassing the foundational sources of America's material and moral power. We ignore this reality at our peril. When we have to do something vital for the national security, we do not get it done by describing as impossible an urgent departure from obsolete practices. We underutilize the forecasting tools at our disposal. In any event, no one is talking about predicting the future: the issue is how to think rigorously about alternative long-term possibilities and their implications for policy in the near term. If the political system is not challenged to excel, it will not. That is what leadership is for. As Chief Executive, the President is not the curator of legacy systems, but he is the most important modernizer and innovator in government. The bureaucracy responds to positive leadership. Its willingness to serve can be used to offset its natural inertia.
Anticipatory governance is a system of institutions, rules, and norms that provides a way to use foresight, networks, and feedback for the purpose of reducing risk and increasing capacity to respond to events at earlier rather than later stages of development. It would register and track events that are barely visible at the horizon; it would self-organize to deal with the unexpected and the discontinuous; and it would adjust rapidly to the interactions between our policies and our problems. In anticipatory governance, systems would be designed to handle multiple streams of information and events whose interactions are complex rather than linear. As a complex system of systems, anticipatory governance is not only the sum of its components, but also its own environment with its own set of characteristics. These characteristics would represent the interplay of subsystems for foresight, networking, and feedback systems. Anticipatory governance would be a scalable process, with similar relationships displayed at every level of governance, from the bureaucratic base to the political apex. A fully operational form of anticipatory governance would be a system of systems, incorporating a foresight system for visualization, a networked system for integrating foresight and the policy process, and a feedback system to gauge performance and to manage "institutional" knowledge.
Systems for Foresight and Visualization. Foresight is about the disciplined analysis of alternative futures. It can be organized as the product of a process to monitor prospective events, provide timely warning of oncoming major events, and alert policymakers to potential consequences. There is always something new and consequential brewing; if potentially transformative or destabilizing developments are detected early, we can take action in the present while they are still nascent enough to be shaped for preferred future outcomes. Systematic, organized foresight is the instrument by which we can imagine alternative futures, allowing us to simulate actions that would otherwise have to be tested against reality, where the consequences of error are irrevocable.
In government, foresight methodologies can be used to create and test alternative constructs about the future. Foresight can be cultivated as the product of a network of organizations, both public and private, employed to bring together forecasting, scenario development, and modeling. This system would be designed to identify and track "weak signals" of potentially major long-range trends and events. The system would hand off these weak signals for tracking and evaluation and use them as drivers in the development of alternative scenarios, including the testing by analysis and simulation of alternative policy responses and their first- and second-order consequences. Scenarios are case studies of the future—looking forward to possible events, rather than backward to known events. They provide a means to test in the mind, or in a virtual setting, what we might otherwise have to try in reality. Other nations and bodies are already well on their way in developing and deploying these capabilities, most notably Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the European Commission.
First Lady Michelle Obama joins students for "Let's Move!" Salad Bars to Schools launch event at Riverside Elementary School in Miami, Florida
The White House (Chuck Kennedy)
Foresight is a discrete form of information with distinct characteristics. Foresight is not a synonym for vision or prediction. Visionaries are exclusive in their views about what should happen and are blind to alternative outcomes. Visionaries seek to knock out the competition. Prediction is a point statement of what will happen in the future. Life does not behave that way. Foresight, on the other hand, means openness to multiple futures; it is about ranges of possibilities, not point predictions. Additionally, foresight is not exclusively future oriented. It is concerned with what will happen, but is used to inflect what is done in the present. Otherwise, we blunder forward with no visibility. Foresight is about conceptualizing what may be happening and what needs to be done in alternative models to protect our interests. It is not a single statement, a single J-curve, an ideology, or a doctrine; it is the capacity to rapidly formulate alternative constructs and examine the consequences of different forms of response in theory and practice.
Anticipation has a dual nature: it is possible to anticipate consequences by visualizing alternative ways in which events play out in response to exogenous events; it is also possible to initiate the events ourselves, in which case, the decision to do so must be enveloped in a concept of what the consequences might be, including both the desirable and undesirable. Either way, foresight entails mindfulness of consequences, especially including those that may not be obvious, and which could be drastic and discontinuous.
Networks for Whole-of-Government Operations. Our legacy systems represent 19th- and 20th-century concepts of organization, constructed on the basis of an 18th-century constitution. Oddly enough, it is the Constitution that continues to be the source of creative change in American government, while our organizational concepts—based on industrial principles—are outmoded. This vertical mode of organization (stovepiping) is based on an understanding of events as linear rather than interactive and complex. This form of organization significantly impedes the ability of government to deal with complex challenges. Authority to act in the present system requires detailed supervision from the top, mediated by large bureaucracies. Information about real-world conditions does not travel easily between field-level components of institutions and the policymaking levels. It flows even less readily between the executive agencies. These shortcomings expose the government to system failure, which takes the form of sudden collapse of function in the presence of unanticipated shocks to the system.
We have left a period when our most serious security problems were by nature stovepiped, when information about these problems was linear, and hierarchical management was sufficient. We have entered a period when the problems we face are themselves networked: information about them is marked by complex interaction, and organization for dealing with them must become flattened and integrated.
The interagency system is especially ill-suited for managing complex priorities that involve strong interactions among formerly isolated policy domains (for example, climate policy in its relationships with energy policy, trade policy, fiscal policy, and defense policy). A more subtle and continuous form of integration between policy and management is needed—what is now being referred to as a whole-of-government approach. Network theory offers an alternative way to organize governance. Networking expands the mandate of lower echelons to act, eliminates bottlenecks latent in middle layers of management, and radically improves the flow of information throughout the new system.
The fundamental idea is that large organizations will—if organized in the form of networks that feed information to the "periphery" and that enable that "periphery" to act toward broadly but clearly stated goals—display a capacity for rapid, internally generated responses that will consistently outmaneuver conventionally organized hierarchical systems. The basis for networking civilian governance can already be found in the uniformed armed Services, where it has been developing for more than two decades as the theory and practice of network-centric warfare. Net-centric warfare is an approach to military operations based on complexity theory, network theory, and advances in command, control, and communications. We need similar networked processes for collection and assessment of intelligence and for policy analysis and implementation. As has been the case in the military, networked civilian operations will require encouragement of a culture of governance adapted to the requirements of action within the framework of complexity.
Gauging Performance. Feedback is employed in engineering as a way to confine the performance of a system within specific bounds, by detecting indicators of error and applying corrections sufficient to redirect the system. In organizations, feedback would depend on sampling mechanisms and on arrangements for converting the outputs of these into corrective actions. The White House does not systematically use sampling and feedback systems to measure the performance of policies. As a result, the United States often does not detect early signs of policy failure until it has become patent and costly. To counter this, we need to design systems to provide feedback connections between estimates and results. These feedback systems should be coupled into the policymaking process to support a constant reassessment and recalibration of policies. Constant feedback is also needed from the policymaker to generators of foresight in order to keep pace with what information is useful and what overloads the circuits.
There are two forms of feedback. What is needed is negative feedback, which serves as a stabilizer to filter out unwanted distortions and to emphasize the signal. All negative feedback systems permit a certain amount of error to pass through as output. This feature of feedback design, when applied to human organization, accommodates the reality of underaction and overaction. It can be used to permit a network to incorporate greater latitude for experimentation and rapid, local response to stimuli, but at the same time it is insurance against rogue or runaway behavior. This link between networking for flexibility and feedback for fidelity is important.
The function of feedback is to monitor actual events to help alert policymakers to the known consequences of actions already taken. In this matter, a feedback system should be regarded as consisting of sensors up front. These sensors provide the earliest evidence that events are following one particular course out of an infinite number of possibilities. One is critically dependent here on the sensitivity of the sensor system and on the way in which information is passed through from this detection mechanism for evaluation by other systems.
Proposals for Operationalization
There are multiple ways to establish these systems, but the system as a whole should be designed to meet criteria for actionability. The pulse of government cannot be stopped while the system is redesigned, and Congress is unlikely to produce an omnibus bill to upgrade government systems. Therefore, to comport with reality, the design of anticipatory governance as a whole, and of its constituent systems, should be:
The following proposals share a common feature in that all of them aim to pass this test for feasibility. The proposals are categorized as follows: creating a high-level incentive for foresight; establishing a foresight-policy bridge; linking foresight methodology to the budgeting process; designing networked arrangements to share information and work across jurisdictional boundaries; and implementing feedback protocols to gauge performance of policy, speed up the learning process, and encourage midcourse correction.
Create High-level Incentives for Foresight
Establish a Foresight-Policy Bridge
Link Strategy to the Budget.
Policy can be linked to resources by creating a venue for OMB–NSC–NEC exchanges at the level of complex priorities.
Networks for Whole of Governance
Systems for Feedback and Learning
Every policy sent to the President (or any senior decisionmaker) for approval should be part of a package including the following explicit terms:
A feedback system could be embedded into the policy process using these mechanisms. It can serve as a basis for ongoing evaluation, reassessment, and recalibration of policies. This is vital for preventing breakdowns and system failures that routinely go undetected until it is too late. It will also speed up system learning from experience to improve the conduct of ongoing policies and to improve the design of policy in the future.
Reconfiguring the government to handle complex priorities—to be anticipatory rather than reactionary—will ultimately require deep changes within the executive branch involving legislation and a lengthy period of organizational adjustment to new processes. However, as we know from experience with the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, once a new legal foundation is laid, it will be the work of a generation to integrate it completely into the processes and culture of government. Meanwhile, the Nation is immersed in multiple ongoing crises, with more coming. Something needs to be done now to capitalize on existing law and precedent. This process can be initiated from the top of the executive branch, using existing Presidential authorities and for the most part by redeploying personnel and using them in new ways rather than by tremendously expanding the staff.
This article's proposals for establishing anticipatory governance are focused on actions which can, to the extent possible, be carried out by the President under existing authorities and precedents. However, even if this approach were to succeed within the White House and/or at the tops of agencies, the larger task of reforming the executive branch bureaucracy would remain, and that job is so big as to eventually require congressional buy-in. In a politically charged atmosphere, this may seem impossible. Nevertheless, it is a mistake to make premature concessions to pessimism. Congress has the flexibility under its own rulemaking powers to adjust to the urgent need for longsighted approaches sustained over considerable periods of time. Doing this is not a constitutional question; it is a question of political leadership.
The national security of the United States is a complex megasystem of systems and needs to be managed as such. The endstate should not be visualized as a vast unitary process, but as many systems harmonized by common strategic direction, conveyed through a networked administrative system. To this point, however, the U.S. Government is without an integrated foresight system, a networked approach to the management of complex priorities, and a formal feedback system to help it learn from experience. The consequences are visible in terms of an increasing number of collisions with "unforeseeable events," and in terms of economic opportunities lost to rivals who are consistently pursuing winning strategies. This pattern is feeding an increasing conviction at home and abroad that the United States is in irreversible decline. Such a conviction feeds on itself and becomes a negative force in and of itself.
The truth is hard to face. For decades, we have acted as if American primacy was the natural order of things rather than a legacy built on the vision and the sacrifices of our predecessors. We have been encouraged to think of ourselves as fortune's favored children, and the sad consequences of that are all too apparent. We must now learn to govern ourselves more intelligently. The first step is to accept that, in a complex universe, the only true constants are surprise and change. Success goes to those who anticipate. PRISM
The author acknowledges the work of Evan Faber, whose substantive expertise, critical comments, and organizational skill were of great value in the preparation of this article.