More than science fiction: Strategic foresight and the future of Congress
This blog is part of an ongoing research project from the Partnership for Public Service that uses strategic foresight to explore future challenges and opportunities for Congress.
The world is changing quickly while our institutions are struggling to keep up, with emerging technologies and other factors likely to play a key role in shaping the future.
One of those institutions is Congress. As the world changes, so should the ability of Congress to tackle important issues and take advantage of opportunities like new technologies and talent sources. The capacity of a future Congress to serve the needs of constituents and the nation will greatly depend on the choices the institution makes today.
What could the future look like for the legislative branch? The Partnership is exploring ways to answer that question, and one method we are using is strategic foresight.
Although it sounds complex, strategic foresight is just a way of thinking creatively about the future so that people and organizations can make plans in the present. It’s a sound research method and strategic planning tool, but requires the same open-minded approach needed to imagine the world of the Jetsons, Avatar, or Dune.
Rather than to think about sandworms or personal robots, however, governments, nonprofits and other institutions use strategic foresight to consider how current social, political or economic trends may shift in the coming years and result in any number of different futures. The goal is to provide insight into a range of future challenges and opportunities, not try to predict the future down to every detail.
In an upcoming research project, the Partnership for Public Service is applying this approach to the legislative branch. We are interviewing experts and identifying a few major trends that will impact the future and ability of Congress to serve the public, including the public’s trust in government, the role of technology and a changing workforce and different constituencies. By exploring the possibilities of these trends, we will develop several possible future scenarios, from the bleak to the hopeful and from the worst case to the best case.
The role of technology and technological capacity is a useful example of one of these trends. It changes more rapidly than we can comprehend, and affects our social, political, economic and cultural lives and institutions. Congress is no exception.
A Congress stuck on hold
In one possible future, technology continues to evolve while congressional capacity lags behind, with lawmakers and staff preferring more traditional and analog methods to complete tasks. Offices respond to constituent questions using phones, emails and mail, increasing wait times for urgent issues and harming trust. IT infrastructure is outdated and lacks adequate security, leaving congressional systems vulnerable to cyberattacks.
Members of Congress struggle to build relationships with a savvy constituencies that move between new social media and digital communication forums rapidly. When emerging technologies like automation and artificial intelligence are used, they are applied inconsistently or inappropriately to congressional work, creating inefficiencies and further barriers between staff, lawmakers and constituents.
Modern government, modern Congress
In a brighter future, congressional capacity keeps up with the rapid pace of technology. Congressional leaders and committee chairs embrace the use of public interest technology and find new ways to communicate with constituents, both individually and as organizations. The willingness of members to experiment with new tools attracts passionate, creative and talented staff. Given the space to innovate, these staff members improve the efficiency of their offices and build closer, more meaningful relationships with constituents.
Congress learns lessons about data modernization and IT infrastructure from the agencies it oversees, making its workplace safer and more secure. By using staff data more effectively in performance management, members improve the diversity of their offices and staff leadership, and successfully recruit and retain quality talent.
Zoë Brouns is an associate manager on the Partnership’s Research, Analysis and Evaluation team.