Over thirty episodes this year, Alex and I have been speaking with public sector professionals, policymakers, stakeholders, and their allies about the crises of 2020 and the response of government bodies around the world.
In our last instalment, I took the opportunity to ask Alex what he’d learned from these conversations, and how the events of 2020 – and their associated learnings – have affected OPSI itself.
It’s impossible to pick out favourite episodes from the series – every guest offered unique and powerful insights – but I do want to highlight two conversations which were particularly provocative for me as a host and listener.
Dr. Peter Scoblic is a co-founder and principal of the strategic foresight consultancy Event Horizon Strategies. A former executive editor at The New Republic and Foreign Policy who has written on foresight for publications including the New York Times, The Washington Post, Science, and Harvard Business Review, Peter is also a senior fellow with the International Security Program at New America, and an instructor for the Professional Development Program at Harvard University. Previously, he was deputy staff director of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, where he worked on approval of the New START agreement and was the chief foreign policy speechwriter for Chairman John Kerry.
On the eve of a particularly fraught election and a turbulent moment in US political history, Peter joined me for a discussion about his career, ranging from post-Cold War nuclear arms policy to the relationship between policymaking and pop culture, plus the practical question of how and to what extent we can usefully predict the future.The interview will appear on this blog in three parts, but you can read it in its entirety as a PDF download here.
I began by asking Peter if he’d always been ambitious to work in foreign policy.
Foreign policy is something I’ve always been interested in, especially national security work, and particularly nuclear weapons work. There’s been a wonky streak running through me over the years, often focussed on these dark existential issues.
It goes back to being a child of the 80s; I believe the second movie I ever saw was War Games, starring Matthew Broderick, in which a teen hacks into the computers of NORAD, the aerospace defence command. I was probably too young to see it and the experience, combined with the actual headlines of that decade, planted a seed which I was able to explore as a student at Brown.
I’m not a big fan of the phrase “new normal”, but if there is one, then for me it involves a lot of Zoom calls, which means mostly seeing people’s heads and shoulders in a cropped little screen.
For my ELGL20 keynote to local government professionals, I grabbed a stepladder to try and find a different perspective, even in a world constrained by the limits of the laptop lens.
My ladder was a prop to remind people why we do foresight work. Sometimes, we think we know what the future holds and we take action in the present, just as confident as someone stepping onto the first rung of a ladder.
But that ladder comprises all the assumptions we are relying on about what the future holds, and what part we’ll play in it.
Every policy is a prediction. Tax cuts will boost the economy. Sanctions will slow Iran’s nuclear program. Travel bans will limit the spread of COVID-19. These claims all posit a causal relationship between means and ends. Regardless of party, ideology, or motive, no policymaker wants his or her recommended course of action to produce unanticipated consequences. This makes every policymaker a forecaster.
We might start climbing that ladder and then realise we need to step left, or right. We might find that the next rung is missing. We might have set off on our ascent quite happily, only to find that circumstances at the top have changed and it is really difficult for us to climb back down. We may even find we have to awkwardly perch half-way up the ladder (I ended up using mine as a chair while I spoke to the ELGL crowd).
Scenarios and other foresight techniques can help us examine the assumptions we are making about the future before we take that first step.
The ladder was also something of a gambit on my part. I hadn’t planned to include it as part of the keynote, but we were using a videoconferencing platform which made it difficult for the speaker to know how the audience were responding. Our host compared it to “speaking on a lit stage where you know the audience is out there, but it’s hard to see their faces”.
Around the halfway point of my session, I wasn’t confident that my message was getting across and I wanted to be sure to drive the point home. I dashed out of the study and fetched my stepladder from behind the kitchen door. Often the liveliest and most memorable parts of a workshop, or any human encounter, come when something doesn’t go according to plan. It’s important to remember that when events go astray, they can go better than we expected or intended, as well as worse – especially if we take advantage of the moment.
So that’s why I brought a ladder to a Zoom keynote. Even if you, too, are trapped by the boxes of the videoconference screen, what can you do to help yourself, and the people you speak with, find a fresh perspective on the futures which await?
Next Monday, 28th September 2020 is International Right to Know Day – a global event raising awareness of our rights to access government information, promoting freedom of information as a fundamental of democracy and good governance.
In Canada, the Public Service Information Community Connection (PSICC), a membership-based social enterprise, supports teams and individuals tasked with meeting public institutions’ obligations around open government, freedom of information and protection of personal data. Their contribution to Right To Know Day 2020 is a weeklong online event addressing issues relevant to public sector information professionals. PSICC’s Dustin Rivers joined me for a brief chat in advance of the event.
As part of the OECD’s Government After Shock project, I’m working with a team from their Observatory of Public Sector Innovation, interviewing public sector leaders & practitioners for a podcast series exploring their perspective on the crises of 2020, and the implications for the future of government worldwide.
As part of the OECD’s Government After Shock project, I’m working with a team from their Observatory of Public Sector Innovation, interviewing public sector leaders & practitioners for a podcast series exploring their perspective on the crises of 2020, and implications for the future of government worldwide.