I was on a panel last week at the annual Washington forum of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on the topic “Anticipatory Governance of Emerging Technologies.” I was probably the only one in the room without a PhD and without a science background. I was the designated “outsider” and felt a bit intimidated but was fascinated by the topic.
Here was a group of scientists concerned about the potential societal implications of nanotechnology, information technology (like autonomous robots), neurotechnology, and biotechnology. They weren’t interested in just unintended consequences like disease, but also potential consequences for social equity, democratic values, the distribution of political power, etc. They recognized that the traditional Scientific Model doesn’t capture all the dimensions people care about.
I’ve been intrigued by the notion of “anticipatory governance” for several years, stemming from the work of the Government Accountability Office under David Walker, who has long been concerned about the fiscal future of our country. As a result, I drafted an issue paper on this topic for the National Academy for Public Administration (NAPA) in preparation for the presidential transition – which I called “governing with foresight.” The topic was also one of the four strategies described in a 2008 IBM Center report by Keon Chi on how states are transforming their governance.
Parallels Between Science and Administration
Listening to the other speakers, I realized that their insights about anticipatory governance in the scientific world roughly paralleled what I’d been reading and learning in the public administration world and that their ideas could be applied more broadly than just emerging technologies.
Scientists understand they need to develop ways to safely handle emerging technologies (e.g., nanotubes have molecular structures similar to asbestos, and we know what happens there). In addition, they understand they have an obligation to manage the potential future health consequences.
Like scientists, government needs to anticipate the future as well. For example, the federal government’s preparation for the swine flu epidemic actually began three years ago in preparation for the avian flu. The public health framework and antiviral stockpiles are in place. Similarly, former Senator John Danforth, on a recent PBS NewsHour show, observed that government now needs to be developing an exit strategy from its unanticipated ownership of auto, banking, insurance, and mortgage companies.
Defining “Anticipatory Governance”
In my presentation, I defined “governance” as “the designation of players and their roles, and defining the formal prerogatives of the role-players; as well as prescribing the communication patterns and decision rights among these players.” This is based on definitions used in the private sector.
I expanded the definition to “anticipatory governance” based on the public administration perspective reflected in Chi’s report: “Changing short-term oriented decisionmaking practices to long-term policies with vision, foresight; and making decisions based on informed trends, evidence-based decisions, with a future co-designed by professionals and citizens.”
The “co-design” element is important, based on studies of collaborative networks in public administration, because it create the legitimacy needed for policymakers to act. But the scientists on the panel helped me understand a new insight. . . In the scientific community, there is great debate over the degree of certainty needed before public action is warranted in responding to uncertain scientific risks. For example, what degree of certainty is needed before the scientific community calls for policy actions regarding climate change? Is this strictly a scientific judgment or is there a role for citizens? To what extent should a decision rely on “deep thinking” by scientists vs. “the wisdom of crowds?” This is when citizen participation seems to play an important role. Citizens can grant the scientific community the legitimacy to act.
From Concepts to Action
The NAPA “foresight” paper outlines three steps for action. These three steps seemed to parallel what the scientists were finding in their work, as well.
Create a broad context that stakeholders can agree on. The military calls this creating a “common operating picture,” where everyone can see the big picture. There have been efforts to do this at the national level via efforts such as the “State of the USA” and Community Indicators projects. A good state-level example is the Council on Virginia’s Future.
Create plans to act on the broader context. This has been done in the defense community via capability-based resource planning, and in the homeland security arena via scenario-driven planning. An effort under the Bush Administration also used the development of “national strategies,” such as the national security, homeland security strategy, and the cybersecurity strategy.
Put mechanism in place to act on the plans. In cities and states, this has been via “performance-stat” approaches such as Baltimore’s Citi-Stat and Maryland’s StateStat. At the federal level, there are cross-agency or/multi-sector task forces, such as the newly-created food safety task force.
Obama is beginning to put in place some of the necessary elements. His Open Government Directive will create the framework for citizen participation, and his effort to expand the use of Web 2.0 tools will provide the tools to do this. It will be interesting to see how the scientific community takes advantage of these new approaches.
Tags: AAAS, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Baltimore CitiStat, Community Indicators, Council on Virginia's Future, David Walker, Government Accountability Office, John Danforth, Keon Chi, Maryland StateStat, NAPA, national strategies, Open Government Directive, PBS NewsHour, scenerio-driven planning, State of the USA