The exercise in its landscape
A new Foresight exercise never emerges into an empty landscape of strategic intelligence and policy-advising and has to be embedded within a wider context. It has to coexist, collaborate and compete with complementary or alternative approaches such as Evaluation, Impact Assessment, Risk Assessment, Technology Assessment, Technology Forecasting, Strategic Planning, Innovation Studies and Futures Studies.
The context of an exercise is always specific as the local political, economic and cultural conditions are unique. Other actors, institutions, decision-making centres, committees, policies, programmes, projects, and activities are certainly already present and addressing some, or all, of the issues at stake. The first step before starting a Foresight exercise is therefore to systematically analyse this context and to identify the agents that it is essential to have on board (and those that it is not), any agents that may help the exercise (and any that may oppose it). It is important to be realistic and aware that some people or institutions may oppose, impede or hinder the starting exercise, openly or not by considering that it steps on their territory.
Foresight exercises have sometimes been managed as a relatively 'stand-alone' project , in particular when organised by regional public authorities. Such projects may be initiated from a strategic position, such as central planning departments or the office of the regional 'governor'. By virtue of their broad focus and central position, these exercises often address cross-thematic and cross-sectoral issues, which can be missed by existing, more-focused, institutions and processes. However, this independence also makes their results difficult to implement, especially if the institutions in charge of the implementation are organised along 'traditional' lines.
Typical problems for the Foresight exercise that might emerge while analysing the context include:
- The sponsor/client has no possibility of acting upon the results of the exercise (e.g. because of a lack of resources or a lack of influence);
- High-level policy support for the exercise does not look likely;
- The sponsor's organisation is divided as to the usefulness of the exercise;
- The expectations of the clients are unrealistic given the context;
- The political landscape is likely to change dramatically during the exercise (e.g. impending elections);
- Relevant/key stakeholders cannot be actively engaged with the project;
- There is no champion in key implementing organisations;
- The area to be tackled is highly controversial among stakeholders and/or policymakers;
- There has been a recent attempt to involve stakeholders in strategic planning that did not succeed;
- There is no tradition of participatory approaches in the field, making engagement of stakeholders difficult.
Foresight outcomes can be taken onboard by policy-makers only if they are fully in step with the policy-making process, in terms of timing, cultural compatibility and usability. Therefore, a thorough analysis of the political context during the design phase of a Foresight exercise is essential. The system in which the exercise is embedded has to be understood as well as the one on which it is supposed to have an impact. The culture of decision-making within ministries/agencies matters for the positioning of Foresight. Decision-making practices are usually context-specific and not codified. They have to be deconstructed in order to “prepare the field”. It is very important to position Foresight within the complex process of policy building and to link up with other activities such as ongoing planning that are already in place.
The following checklist was elaborated as a tentative guideline to perform this crucial step in the early phase of designing a Foresight exercise:
- Who are the main actors involved in the decision making process related to the subject that the Foresight exercise will be dealing with? (If possible identify not only the departments/institutions but also specific persons)
- What are other government bodies that might be affected by decisions that might be influenced by the Foresight exercise?
- What are other government bodies that might be in a position to act upon the results of the Foresight?
- What is the procedure for decision making? (in some cases it could be useful to develop a graphical representation such as a flow chart)
- What kind of input is fed into the policy decision making process and at which stage (e.g. advisory groups, studies)?
- What other strategy building activities are in place (e.g. regional development plan, consensus conferences)
There is more information on context in some of the example cases: