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Peering Into the Future – What Can North Carolina Learn From New Zealand?

by | Jan 27, 2023 | Future, Future Planning, Government, North Carolina | 0 comments

Planning for an unpredictable future

Once a year, when I was leading a fuel distribution business in Michigan, my executives and I would take a few days to think hard about the possible futures for our company, the opportunities and threats we faced, the risks and uncertainties of the future, and – most of all — the future we would like to see for the company. We gathered as many facts as we could, we looked at trends, we speculated about surprises we might face, and we had serious discussions that often led to hard decisions.

This work did not guarantee success. We still made mistakes, encountered unanticipated surprises, took wrong turns, and had occasional losing years. But our strategic work gave us a common vision and the resilience to bounce back. Crystal Flash is now celebrating 91 years of service to its customers and is more profitable than ever under employee-ownership.

There’s a smart aleck remark you hear in business that, “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.” Businesses that have long-term success usually have disciplined processes to peer ahead, knowing they will never be able to predict the future, but that discussing possible futures will help them handle risks and take advantage of opportunities. If we care about our children and grandchildren’s futures, we should certainly demand our leaders think about the risks and opportunities we face and position our states to provide the best futures for them in the 2040s.

When I wrote my last post, I was shocked that I could not find any government agency, industry association, or university department that was thinking strategically about the future of farming in Michigan and North Carolina. I hope someone is doing that and I just failed to find them!

New Zealand’s experiment in exploring the future

This experience made me wonder if any democracies had systems to look ahead and plan for future contingencies. At least one does — New Zealand has started a system to build more foresight into its governing through forward-looking reports. Jonathan Boston, a New Zealander who writes extensively about governing with the future in mind, sent me an article about a new requirement under their Public Service Act 2020. Beginning in 2023, heads of government departments must produce “Long-term Insight Briefings” for their House of Representatives once every three years.

The purpose of these briefings is to:

  • Provide information about medium and long-term trends, risks, and opportunities that affect New Zealand,
  • Provide impartial information about a range of policy options that respond to the trends, risks, and opportunities,
  • Provide pros and cons of policy options without taking a position.
  • Consult with the public to involve them in the process.

These reports are just starting to roll out. By the end of 2023, there will be 18 of them. A few draft titles give a flavor of what their agency heads are thinking about:

  • How can we help biodiversity thrive through the innovative use of information and emerging technologies?
  • Youth at risk of limited employment: Preparing all young people for satisfying and rewarding working lives
  • The long-term implications of our aging population on the future of housing and urban development in Aotearoa New Zealand
  • Long-term insights about imprisonment and what these tell us about future risks and opportunities
  • The future of New Zealand’s Food and Fibre Sector: Exploring new demand opportunities for the sector in the year 2050

Once the reports are done, they will be submitted to the relevant committees in NZ’s House of Representatives. The committees will have 90 working days to consider the reports and make recommendations to the full House on actions that should be taken.

Why don’t we give it a try?

It’s too early to tell what impact the Long-term Insights Briefings will have, but at least New Zealand’s government is making an effort to peer into the future. North Carolina has twice the population of New Zealand and we have well-experienced people in our administrative departments – why don’t we give it a try? Who would know more about the threats, opportunities, and risks in each departmental area than the people who work with them every day? Our elected representatives would have the final say over what we do about any issues department heads raise.

I will be following developments in New Zealand and will let you know how things progress. In the meantime, can we afford not to have the leaders of our government departments report to our governors, legislators, and “we the people” on future threats, opportunities, and risks they foresee for our states? In a democracy, we can’t let the civil servants run the government, but shouldn’t they have a duty to warn us if they see potential developments that will affect our kids’ future wellbeing? New Zealand’s system may just be formalizing something that should be happening everywhere in democracies.

Is there something I’m missing?

If you know of government departments or organizations that are publishing reports about our states’ futures with a twenty year horizon, please leave a comment!

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