I’ve been thinking again about government matters as I look to form up a new direction for the small piece of a government program that I can do something about personally. I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about some of my on-the-ground frustrations with how government works internally, and I could and may say a lot more about that at some future time. However, I have been confronting my own personal propensity toward negativity on a number of fronts and am actively working to turn that sometimes negative immediate energy toward creative ideas on what I might do to try and make things better.

With this in mind, I picked up a book the other day that I’ve started going through from the standpoint of forming a new vision for a biogeographic/biodiversity program that I’ve written about in the last couple of articles. The book is Government for a New Age by Rabih Abouchakra and Michel Khoury published earlier this year.  I’ve only read through and taken notes on the first chapter, so far, but there are enough intriguing ideas that I found them worth writing about and starting a new series of thinking here in my blog.

I did first have to take a little detour this morning and scratch an itch that’s been bugging me for a while. Being well into a very long, drawn out, and quite overcrowded political campaign season, I’m hearing all the usual rhetoric on the evils of government. One statement from a radio piece the other day struck me. It was a woman, originally from Venezuela, speaking about how the Federal government in the U.S. has invaded nearly every part of her life just like it was back home. For some reason, that seemed very strange to me, and it got me to thinking about all the other non-qualified and non-quantified statements that fly around about such things. I wondered again just what it is that’s at the heart of the antigovernment movement and whether the rhetoric has any real substance behind it.

I did spend some time a while ago reading materials from the Cato Institute and Americans for Prosperity, two of the major organizations I hear about as conservative think tanks or pundit factories. I had a hard time getting past the rhetoric there as well and down to any hard points. I found an article this morning from someone on the other side of that debate that I thought fairly clearly summed up the antigovernment campaign. Reading the article gave me a little more clear way of understanding and summing up the historic roots of the ideological and big business/corporate interests end of the argument, and the author’s further description of how government becomes the scapegoat for all ills rings true with the constant unsubstantiated rhetoric all over media. All of that may be worth spending a little more time on in future, but it did help harden my own resolve to do what little I can to help make the small part of a government science program I can have some influence over as good and positive a force for society as I can.

So, back to Government for a New Age and the chapter on Embracing visionary thinking. I highlighted and took notes in this chapter on quite a few things that resonated with how I’ve been thinking about our newly forming vision, starting with this one:

Government for a new age must first contemplate risks where the drivers or constraints involved are not fully understood, where it is usually impossible or difficult to accurately forecast their likelihood, or their consequences and implications.

Fundamentally, this is the philosophy for our entire agency that was set in motion by a new science strategy in 2007 (having roots going back to the 90s) that resulted in reorganizing around societal challenge areas instead of our previous decades of alignment with academic disciplines. It pushed for more interdisciplinary research, and the Director that put the reorganization together spoke regularly about the need to do more work to anticipate the next big societal challenges instead of reacting to those that have already manifested. I spent some amount of time working on a science strategy for one component of the overall agency and then over the last year working with a high level team on the future of big data and data science in the Federal government. In both of these cases, the charge has been to look further down the road beyond the hubbub of the current political cycles and changes in administration to clarify more of the far future, higher risk aspects of what government should concern itself with. Abouchakra and Khoury go on to state the following:

Foresight in this context can be viewed as a policymaking support process that facilitates a particular way of thinking about the future and examining themes and issues that need to be considered strategically and with a long-term perspective. Foresight work allows a greater range of possible futures to be considered when formulating strategy. It challenges conventional wisdom by forcing the consideration of alternatives.

This resonated with my previous post about why our team is working toward a national-scale examination of biodiversity, hopefully within a larger interdisciplinary view of ecosystems and their health. The chapter goes on to describe horizon scanning (somewhat shorter term) and scenario exercises (longer term strategic thinking) as tools for government to accomplish this mission, and I will examine those concepts further in future posts.

I’ve been working toward the organizational construct of what I’ve been calling a Biogeographic Analytical Laboratory; a new way of organizing our group across government and academic staff to go about our work. I hadn’t thought about it too far yet, but this new laboratory could be part of a network across our organization and others with the common purpose of creating the type of  “permanent foresight unit” that Abouchakra and Khoury describe. Within the USGS, we have a number of other groups who are fundamentally approaching the foresight problem through integrated science from a number of directions.

Another passage from the book describes some advantages we could likely achieve through collaboration across these think tanks and what I’m thinking of more as a skunkworks that I am working to create in our Biogeographic Analytical Laboratory. Together with a community of practice we’re a part of, the Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP), and complimentary groups from other agencies, I believe we can bring about a permanent foresight capability across earth system science that can find the advantages in this passage.

Foresight work offers internal advantages for governments. These include creating a shared understanding of the future and a common vocabulary for discussing it; providing a forum for organizational knowledge sharing and for tapping into outside expertise not normally accessible in the planning process; the creation of informal networks across ministries and departments; and a safe forum for discussing potentially controversial and difficult issues.

I plan to dig further into this book and write about how it and other materials may help continue forming up vision for where my one small piece of government can go to help society writ large and our own local culture in the U.S. address the many challenges for coexisting with all the other life on this planet. I have some ideas about how we might achieve things like the “central government repository for the findings from horizon scanning” that the authors talk about through some research and development work we are currently doing in concert with ESIP. I’m going to continue capturing these thoughts here on my personal space because the thoughts are my own, written on my own time, and perhaps at times critical of my institution. It’s also my small way of being transparent in my thinking.