Reflections on Federal Foresight Initiatives in the 1970s

Jun 20, 2016


During the 1970s the planning and foresight community worked very hard to incorporate the long view – foresight perspective and practices – into governmental functions when and wherever we could especially in the major legislative accomplishments. What was done in that decade?

The ongoing Department of Defense Planning, Programming, and Budgeting System and the RAND futures and systems network served as the foundation for a series of related efforts:

  • the evolving intergovernmental system of socioeconomic policies and programs;
  • the ongoing “Limit to Growth” debate and proposals; and
  • the long view narrative of the Nixon White House National Goals Research Staff report of July 1970 (see my March 9, 2016, blog on this report).

The relentless and widely respected leadership of Elmer Staats, then Comptroller General, was critical in all these and many more public policy and management actions of the 1970s. (For full disclosure, I was fortunate to be part of Elmer Staats’ team that worked on these legislative initiatives). The approach was to institutionalize the long view and foresight practices, as well as accountability measures, into legislation when and where ever we could. This occurred in a number of policy arenas, such as:

Environmental policies and institutions

A top priority of the futures community in the late 1960s and beyond was the “Limits to Growth” – the unsustainability of the rate of global population growth combined with the limits of our natural resources and damage being done to our ecological systems. The Nixon White House argued for a “balanced growth” and a systems approach. As is normal when we have a big problem and don’t know what to do, we create an organization to do “it.” In this instance it started with establishing the Council on Environmental Quality within the Executive Office of the President as part of the National Environmental Policy Act which was signed into law by President Nixon on January 1, 1970. Air pollution, water pollution, and energy crises drove implementation during the 1970s using a systems approach and science-based assessments and analyses. President Carter used the interagency environmental network to conduct a “Global 2000” study, which was led by CEQ and the Department of State. The report was not completed and published until July 1980 – in the middle of an election year. It was rejected by the Reagan Administration and never used. However, much of the rigor of the long view, system approach, and science-based analyses have all held up in environmental administration.

Science Policy and Technology Assessment

Another high priority for the foresight community was taking the long view in science policy and establishing rigorous and transparent technology assessment.

The United States had experienced full mobilization of the nation’s science and technology capabilities to support World War II military operations, including the creation of the system of national laboratories and a trove of new technologies. The national science and technology enterprise was only partially demobilized and the new intellectual property was commercialized to support the nationwide building of the “American Dream” and relentless economic development. The American public followed the space program with deep interest and pride. It was in this context that the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy were created.

The Nixon administration did not support technology assessment as proposed by the Congress on the basis that is was too anti-business. Therefore, the Congress created its own Office of Technology Assessment in 1972. To assure that the assessments were rigorous and transparent, the technology assessment process was spelled out in the legislation -- a hugely important accomplishment for the futures research community.

Congress established the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in 1976 with a broad mandate to advise the President and others on the effects of science and technology on domestic and international affairs, to develop and implement sound science and technology policies and budgets, and to work with the private sector, state and local governments, the science and higher education communities, and other nations toward these ends.

Leaders in the futures community participated directly in the design and implementation of these offices.

Planning in the U.S. intergovernmental system of shared powers for social services and economic development

 wide array of Federal intergovernmental support programs had been created in the 1930s through 1960s. It had been left to local governments to integrate and implement this Federal assistance coming from multiple sources. In his introduction to the Nixon White House National Goals Research Staff report, Daniel P. Moynihan asserts that:

“Government, for the most part, is a collection of programs.”

“In terms of the social system, programs represent ‘inputs’.”

“We are moving from program to policy-oriented government.”

“… policy is primarily concerned with the ‘outputs’ of a given system.”

He then argues for a systems approach, foresight and planning, participation, accountability and more.

1970s initiatives to strengthen our Federal system of intergovernmental shared powers included long-term planning for and by communities supported by Federal “planning grant programs.” Throughout the decade the then professional planning and futures communities provided contract and think tank support for numerous “Year 2000” foresight activities which linked local, state and Federal goals and supporting resources with county and city land use and development planning focused on local conditions, capabilities and needs.

Fiscal policy outlooks and cost estimates for proposed legislation

Creation of the Congressional budget process in 1973 and 1974, provided the opportunity to institutionalize into the functions of the Congressional Budget Office and the House and Senate Rules two important foresight practices (they were never called that):

  • Authoritative and independent outlooks of fiscal and economic conditions to provide a context for Congressional action on the Federal budget.
  • Long term cost estimates for proposed legislation.

Of course, their success was dependent upon CBO becoming independent and highly competent and respected, Alice Rivlin and many others made this happen initially and have continued to provide these critical services.

Unemployment and macro-economic policies and practices

Many 1970s foresight practitioners were deeply concerned about the future of work, workers, and working families wellbeing. Among other initiatives, they joined progressives in changing macro-economic policy making to give explicit priority to “full employment” in fiscal and monetary policy. This was eventually enacted in the 1978 “Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act.” Since then, ”full employment” has been recognized as a critical factor, along with GDP, inflation, and interest rates.

Assuring quality information for use in the policy making and management

As outlined above, much of the foresight work was analytic and systemic; therefore, it was dependent on quality data. Among others actions, we legislated the independence of the Federal statistical community and its functioning as a national system in support of government, business, research, and open to everyone. Some work was begun to create similar independence and professionalism in the emerging information systems functions.

Planning and evaluation were to have been institutionalized in non-defense departments

In DOD, the PPBS continued to evolve throughout the 1970s. The other departments began adopting some of the practices and several designated Assistant Secretaries for Planning and Evaluation. The hope was to create greater discipline, systems perspective, and longer time horizon in the administration of socioeconomic policies and programs. As discussed above, the haphazard post-WWII growth of intergovernmental program relationships was widely recognized as a critical problem and the need for streamlining and modernization was to be part of the mission of these new planning and evaluation functions. In my judgment, unfortunately the Carter administration had no knowledge of or capability to lead design and implementation of such a complex function. Progress stopped as the highly talented and capable people that could have led the work were redirected to implement a simplistic and naïve “zero-based budgeting” processes.

Systematic reconsideration of authorizing legislation (“sunset requirements”) and House committee foresight requirements

Following Congresses successful reclamation of powers from the Executive via the War Powers Act of 1973 and the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 and the establishment of the Office of Technology Assessment, serious attention was then given to modernizing the Congress itself including addressing the problems of permanent legislation – entitlements, credit programs, tax expenditures, and more.

Senator Edmund Muskie sparked the debate with his proposal to “sunset” all legislation, thus forcing Congress to periodically reconsider what was then (and is now) permanent legislation. Senator Muskie operated from his position on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. The House Rules Committee, led by Rep. Richard Boling, and the Senate Rules and Administration Committee were the focal points and forums for serious work on the next modernization and streamlining of the Congress (since the last major change by the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 with some further adjustments made in the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970). Unfortunately, all of this good work “died” in these committees.

In 1974, the House of Representatives added to its rules concerning the organization and operations of committees (Rule X), specifically their general oversight responsibilities, requirements concerning foresight. The current rules still require that the committees shall review and study on a continuing bases “future research and forecasting on subjects within its jurisdiction.”

In 1976, the Congress created a legislative service organization called the Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future which worked with the broad futures community and provided information to members on trends and long term issues. It was terminated in the 1990s.

Closing: the post-World War II era of long views and systemic planning and foresight was brought to an end by 1981

In the Spring of 1981, the Reagan administration eliminated “planning” and “futures and foresight” in non-military government institutions –  

  • departmental “planning” staff were abolished;
  • intergovernmental planning grant programs were merged into block grants to the states;
  • “deregulation” initiatives diminished the long view and systemic rigor in the regulation of commerce, public health and safety, and environmental protection.

Congress did not abolish the Office of Technology Assessment and Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future until the 1990s when the Republicans gained control.

The post-WWII era of systems thinking and planning (my world) ended and I was there to watch. But a generation later, I may have a ringside seat in coming years to see some elements of strategic foresight reconstituted!