This aim of this post is to develop an initial outline of some of the politics of prospective exercises – both ‘small p’ politics such as the exercising of power to influence such studies, the findings, and use of the outputs; and broader Politics related to how such activities are often conducted and used in the political sphere (e.g. the Australian Treasurer’s construction of forecasts in order to help justify proposed budget policies and the related controversies that Dr Karl Kruzeniski got caught up in). These politics have some interesting potential implications, which are noted towards the end of the post.
I’m very interested in other peoples’ experiences and thoughts, so please weigh-in in the comments section if you have thoughts on the topic. I’m centrally considering the politics of prospective exercises as part of my consideration of a ‘political-cultural’ perspective on strategic action which is being drawn on in some case study research (as per a social field theory developed by American sociologists).
Initially, it’s useful to list a number of ways that politics and Politics could influence a prospective exercise and its impacts (e.g. consideration and use of the findings). These include:
- Exercising personal power to influence who participates in a prospective exercise and the nature of their participation;
- Exercising personal power to influence the design of a prospective exercise – e.g. defining the purpose, methodology and methods used, etc;
- Differential power of actors and groups shaping their ability to contribute to, and influence, the dialogue during a prospective exercise;
- Powerful participants and/or process leaders/facilitators explicitly exercising their personal power to influence the outputs or findings of a prospective exercise (e.g. exercising influence over the framing of the report that is produced and/or other process outputs, influencing assumptions that are made such as in modelling exercise or a scenario exercise, etc);
- Conflict between stakeholder groups involved in a prospective exercise, e.g. due to conflicting interests (e.g. organisations with contrasting private / economic interests), and/or conflicting preferences, or due to other factors;
- Alliance development within a prospective exercise which could, for example, lead to warring factions amongst participants and related competing agendas and conflict;
- Opportunistic use of the process or outputs of a prospective exercise to justify an already-determined Political program and/or policies;
- Use of the outputs as political ammunition in policy debates, e.g. as per Carol Weiss’ observation of how partisans often selectively draw on research aiming to “flourish the evidence in an attempt to neutralize opponents, convince waverers, and bolster supporters”;
- Opportunistic use of the outputs of a prospective exercise as political ammunition within strategy contests conducted in organisations;
- The misuse of findings to advance particular interests, e.g. distortion or misinterpretation of findings;
- Ignoring the findings of a study if they are seen as a threat to political interests or are, overall, considered to be ‘politically inconvenient’; and
- Conducting prospective exercises with the underlying objective of defending, substantiating, or promoting a particular ideological position.
This brief list indicates that politics and Politics can be an important influence during various stages of such an exercise, e.g. influencing:
- Whether such a study is conducted, its purpose, and the design of the exercise;
- The use of specific techniques of prospection (e.g. techno-economic modelling, scenario exercises);
- Decision-making during a prospective exercise, e.g. decisions made about participation, workshop design, and conflict resolution;
- The presentation and framing of study findings; and
- The consideration and use of study findings.
Something that immediately emerges from even the most cursory consideration of such politics (both ‘small p’ politics and Politics) is that the potential for politics to influence the exercise is extensive. Indeed it may, in practice, be impossible for such an exercise to be completely free of politics, both in terms of the substantive content that is produced (i.e. the findings) and the impact or implications of a study.
Additionally, some argue that the generation and sustaining of expectations is an inherently political process. For example, Alan Petersen (a sociologist at Monash University) argues that many forms of political behaviour are involved in establishing high expectations in emerging areas of biomedical research and innovation (e.g. stem cell technologies). Petersen points to a “political economy of hope” sustained by those actors which have an interest in the maintenance of high expectations (see Petersen, 2011, The Politics of Bioethics). He adopts a politics of knowledge perspective which aims to highlight the political implications of particular ways of knowing and the consequences of these for social action.
Potential implications of the politics of prospective exercises
One possible implication is that prospective exercises can never be truly Scientific in the sense of being a form of objective empirical research or value-free inquiry (if we use that narrow definition of science). For example, if we consider the budget forecasts released by the Australian Government it’s extremely likely to be influenced by both politics and Politics – it’s simply inherent to this type of analysis.
Related to this implication, the outputs of prospective exercises will be open to legitimate question. This, in turn, will influence the use of the outputs and the potential for anticipatory knowledge to be authoritative and/or perceived as such. The credibility of the outputs of a prospective exercise may, further, depend on the extent to which a process can be demonstrated to have been independent of politics (or Politics), and also be influenced by the social authority and credibility of those releasing the findings (e.g. with the messenger mattering at least as much as the rigor of the research).
A third key implication is that practitioners need to have the ability to recognise and deal with political issues as and when they arise during the design or execution of a prospective exercise. This topic was very poorly addressed in a Masters of Strategic Foresight course that I completed in the mid-2000s, with some exceptions such as the advice to critically consider whatever brief we’re given in a consulting context (e.g. critically considering what is the real problem that needs to be addressed, not just what is written down; and considering why this piece of work has been commissioned).
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this matter, e.g. by weighing-in in the comments section below.