Focusing on Foresight

GAO-06-1041CG: Published: Jul 28, 2006. Publicly Released: Jul 28, 2006.

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This speech was given by the Comptroller General before the World Future Society Conference in Toronto, Canada, on July 28, 2006. I think it's important to understand how myopia or shortsightedness can undermine a nation's willingness and ability to act. In the case of the United States, strong economic growth, modest inflation levels, relatively low interest rates, and our current superpower status have given many policymakers and the American public a false sense of security about our nation's current position and future prospects. Even though we know a demographic tsunami is building silently offshore--I'm referring to the impending retirement of our baby boom generation--America continues to party on and pile up record levels of debt. When it comes to fiscal and other public policy issues, Supreme Audit Institutions (SAI) can help focus attention on what lies ahead. I believe that in addition to providing oversight and insight work, SAIs can and should alert public officials to key emerging challenges and opportunities. I'm talking here about providing policymakers with valuable foresight. Today, GAO is working hard to help members of Congress better understand the trends and challenges facing the United States and its position in the world. We're also trying to help lawmakers grasp the long-term implications of current policy choices. Our goal is for Congress to expand its horizon and its peripheral vision. We want policymakers to better understand where we, how we may look 30 or even 40 years out, and the collateral or ripple effects of various policies and programs. In this spirit and in an effort to lead by example, GAO has published an unprecedented report called "21st Century Challenges" that asks a series of probing, sometimes provocative, questions about current government policies, programs, and operational practices. The report brings home how much of the U.S. government reflects organizational models, labor markets, life expectancies, transportation systems, security strategies, and other conditions that are rooted in the past. So, what's been the reaction of policymakers to our 21st Century Challenges report? I'm pleased to say we're seeing some hopeful signs in several areas that GAO has highlighted. For example, our government is taking seriously the need to plan ahead for the possibility of a global influenza pandemic similar to the one in 1918, which killed millions worldwide.

To better meet Congress' information need on these emerging issues, GAO has developed an approach we call "grounded foresight." We believe that to be credible, foresight work must have a strong factual and conceptual basis. Such work needs to ground all trends in evidence. After all, everyone's entitled to their own opinion but not to their own facts! At the same time, such work also needs to clearly convey the uncertainty that's inherent in foresight analysis. Several key tools are available to encourage a forward focus. These tools include strategic planning, key national indicators, and scenario planning. Unfortunately, not all governments, including my own, have taken full advantage of these tools. By thinking more comprehensively, learning from the past and others, and focusing on the future, governments can better set priorities, target their efforts, add value, reduce risks, manage change, and capitalize on new opportunities. After all, if you don't have a plan, you don't have a prayer of maximizing value and mitigating risk! In our case, GAO's strategic plan defines our agency's mission, goals, and objectives. GAO's strategic plan also includes our agency's core values. These values represent our institutional beliefs and boundaries that are designed to be timeless in nature. Furthermore, our plan also includes a range of key public policy trends and challenges that warrant attention from lawmakers and our agency. Because these trends and challenges lack geopolitical and sectoral boundaries, they are also relevant for many other nations, including Canada. So what themes or trends does GAO expect to concentrate on in the coming years? Perhaps the most urgent issue is America's worsening financial condition and growing long-term fiscal imbalance. Long-term fiscal analyses by GAO and our sister agency in the legislative branch, the Congressional Budget Office, show that federal deficits will grow to unsustainable levels in as little as two decades. At that point, without significant policy changes, federal deficits could reach 10 percent or more of our economy. States and local governments face increasing future fiscal pressures as well. Largely because of our aging population, rising health care costs, and relatively low revenues as a percentage of the economy, America faces decades of red ink. To put us on a more prudent and sustainable long-term path, the federal government must begin to make tough choices in connection with budget systems, legislative processes, entitlement programs, spending patterns, and tax policies. There's no way we will grow our way out of our fiscal hole. The sooner we begin to act, the better because, as the world's largest debtor nation, time is working against us.

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