Policy making is always targeting the future. Through regulations and programs, governments intend to steer the course of events into a more desired society and economic prosperity. Various governments are using foresight studies as strategic background documents about plausible futures. These can be large encompassing foresight studies. However, strategic policy development can also be helped by scenario planning for specific themes. It can bring strategic advantages to explore uncertain futures and anticipate risks of potential events and wildcards. The only problem is that the media and general public may take such scenarios too literally. Governments planning for potential events like the fall of the Euro may be interpreted as governments seeing those futures as likely or even certain. The next thing to be happening may even be that scenarios give rise to a self-fulfilling prophecy. How can governments engage in scenario planning without triggering such a belief system?
Strategic foresight as a tool for policy makers
Policy makers are aware that they need to think ahead. They know that they need to consider potential wild cards and other disruptive events with widespread consequences, which impact the effectiveness of policies and ask for new policies. For this reason, government supported institutes produce horizon scans and foresight studies. Regularly, ministries also have projects on scenario planning and strategic foresight. Often these are large projects that boil down in a book, conference meetings and policy letters. In addition to these institutionalized foresight projects, there are many distinct policy themes that could benefit from strategic foresight and thinking about plausible futures. In theory, yes. But in practice, it could make people nervous.
Thinking futures, a safe space?
In their study about the Shell tradition of scenario planning, Wilkinson and Kupers have noted that Shell business leaders could talk more freely about potential events in scenarios planning sessions, compared to operational planning. Scenarios are considered a safe space for exploring the future. The discussion on scenarios of the future is not about accountability, but serves to harness intuition and sensitivity to make sense of current affairs.
A private company as Shell can do this in full confidentiality. In governmental organizations, everything is public. Every citizen can request information about everything. The safe space of scenario planning is also to some extent public. This is where the nervousness stems from. If scenarios made by policy makers are addressing undesired or politically sensitive futures, then this in itself could already shape the public debate.
Avoiding potential self-fulfilling prophecies
It is not farfetched thinking that news media could reframe a scenario planning exercise into forecasts or prognoses about future events. Or even make interpretations about the government’s preferred scenarios. This would completely disempower the practice of scenario planning. Still, this dire vision should not stop governments from taking up scenario planning as a strategy tool. Fortunately there are several ways to overcome potential self-fulfilling prophecies.
Use figurative examples and imaginary countries and characters
The US Defense Department has developed an elaborative plan for a zombie attack on their country. The document can be seen as a training tool and presents detailed instructions for combatting several types of zombies, each with their own lethal threats. They point out explicitly that it is not a Strategic Command Plan. Talking about zombies is a clever way not to mention specific countries in their combat training exercise. Fantasy characters and countries could serve as placeholders. This allows policy maker to talk about storylines and depersonalize individual preference for the purpose of seeing a wider range of policy options.
Scenario planning as common practice
The easiest way to avoid the self-fulfilling prophecy is to engage in scenario planning as a regular practice. If scenario planning is seen as a common brainstorming tool that helps in sense making of uncertain futures, then it is part of the process that all sorts of desirable and undesirable futures are written down in storylines. Regular practice of scenario planning sharpens one’s skills in analyzing strategic policy implications in phase of complexity and uncertainty. Moreover, as many will confirm, scenario planning exercises are a fun way to engage with people and talk about difficult matters.