Helen Clark: Speech at “Building Resilience in SIDS through Foresight” side event at UN Conference on Small Island Developing States

Sep 1, 2014

Apia, Samoa, 1 September 2014

Thank you, Prime Minister, for sharing with us first hand your recent experience with foresight in Tonga.

I am very happy that our Global Centre for Public Service Excellence in Singapore is working closely with you and the UNDP Pacific Centre and others to prototype methods and tools for the Public Service that have the potential to make a real difference in development.

We set up the Centre jointly with our partner – the Government of Singapore – as an evidence and convening hub that would act as a catalyst for thinking, strategy and action in the area of public service.

Our topic today – foresight – has been picked up as one of four key ingredients to public service excellence. What we are really talking about is the future in plural: the capacity to envisage the various alternative futures; to consider them, select the preferred future and to pursue it, without losing sight of opportunities and risks along the way.

Adding foresight to the mix, along with traditional planning approaches, promises to make strategies, policies and plans less vulnerable to complexity and emergent risks. It can open the eyes of strategists and planners to opportunities that are currently overlooked or ignored, since our existing incentive structures reward plan implementation with limited flexibility.

While current approaches keep us looking down at our plans and files, restricting our ability to see and adapt, a foresight practitioner would be looking up, scanning the horizon for potential disruptions, sensing changes, and adapting the next move to leverage new potential or to address risks.

Public service also often overlooks or ignores or misses out on key information which is in plain view of our citizens and businesses. The sensing capacity – both for threats and opportunities – could be significantly sharpened through greater participation and engagement. The wisdom of citizen experts and benefits of crowdsourcing have been much talked about, but making participatory processes work is still a challenge.

When Governments engage their citizens in conversations about their shared future and take into account their views this can strengthen strategy and policy. Events like the foresightXchange in Tonga unearth hidden gems, bring out new leaders, and build trust that those in power are keen to understand and take note of the many visions of the future that can be expressed by a nation’s citizens.

As UNDP we support sustainable human development across all developing countries, including those experiencing profound crises and others facing highly complex challenges – such as climate change.  We too need to make the best use of foresight methodology.

In many fast developing countries, the present evolves rapidly. Problems are so immediate and needs are so pressing that foresight may seem a luxury. When the present absorbs all our energy, there is often little time to look beyond the horizon.

In these circumstances, the weight of making important decisions and considering their impact may rest largely or even solely on the country’s leadership. This is a heavy burden and there are limitations to the wisdom of a single leader. I know.  I’ve been one.  Successful leaders who have dealt with crises effectively and placed their nations on a path to success have demonstrated time and again that combining vision and foresight matters – both their own, and that of their close circle of advisors.

Foresight approaches can be applied differently in stable developing country environments which have left the rough seas of crisis and rapid development. Calmer waters allow for casting the net wider and engaging a larger number of people to produce inclusive policies and strategies.

High income countries like the UK, the USA and Singapore are accustomed to foresight in the public service.  So too are emerging economies like India or South Africa which have also used foresight methods and tools successfully. What seems to vary most is the diffusion of skills across different national public service establishments.

Singapore is a leader in spreading futures awareness and skills throughout its public service, and in pushing the change-readiness of its decision makers throughout ministries and departments. It has a truly impressive system of future spotters and sense-makers.

Planning is a regular feature in all countries to some degree or another and is a core function of a public service, without which no Government can succeed. All countries practise it, but few are able to make their plans and strategies into living documents which provide enough flexibility and room for change.

Key changes in institutional culture are required to do that:
towards embracing uncertainty, replacing silo-thinking with whole-of-government approaches, and creating space for sensible risk-taking – for example, to change course when things still seem to be going well, but foresight suggests otherwise.

With clear leadership, political support, and drive, changing institutional culture will reinvigorate a public service.

The post-2015 development agenda process and the prospect of new Sustainable Development Goals will spark a new round of planning and strategy development towards “the future we want”. The full spectrum of foresight methods should be brought to bear in this new agenda, and be adapted to different contexts and purposes.

UNDP will be organizing its next foresightXchange in Rwanda in October this year.  Rwanda experienced genocide and then reconciliation within a span of 20 years. There we are looking at integrating foresight methods into the country’s existing strategic planning processes. The country is experiencing rapid development with a very future-oriented government. I am sure its public service will be able to make excellent use of foresight approaches.

Small Island Developing States are among the most vulnerable developing countries with a high exposure to shocks. While there is no fail-proof protection against these shocks, it is indispensable that the public service in SIDS can lead the way on adaptability and change-readiness.

At UNDP we continually emphasize the importance of transforming the structures and systems which perpetuate fragility and undermine resilience.

I am therefore very excited that we are looking at strategic planning as one of those key areas in which Public Services around the world need to become much more innovative.

I wish the Government of Tonga success with the preparation of its forthcoming National Development Plan and the follow-up on the Tonga foresightXchange.

UNDP is committed to providing all necessary technical support requested by the Government of Tonga for the formulation of its new national development plan.

Thank you for the opportunity to be part of today’s event.  I look forward to hearing the remarks of my fellow speakers and panellists.

UNDP Around the world