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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.

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