This is the accessible text file for CG Speech GAO-06-1041CG 
entitled 'Focusing on Foresight: Speech before the World Future Society 
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Presentation by: 

The Honorable David M. Walker: 

Comptroller General of the United States: 

Focusing on Foresight: 

Speech before the World Future Society Conference Toronto, Canada July 
28, 2006: 


United States Government Accountability Office: 

Nearly a century ago, one of my favorite U.S. Presidents, Theodore 
Roosevelt, said, "We have to, as a nation, exercise foresight…and if we 
do not exercise that foresight, dark will be the future." These words 
resonate with me, and I expect they also resonate with you. 

Unfortunately, much of our world, including the United States, is 
consumed with the here and now. Far too little thought is given to 
what's come before or what lies ahead. 

* Too many individuals tend to focus on their next paycheck. 

* Too many company executives focus on the next quarterly earnings 

* Too many politicians focus on the next election cycle rather than the 
next generation. 

* And too many countries focus on their current position in the world 
while forgetting that we're all inhabitants of planet earth. 

But whether we're talking about a government, a not-for-profit entity, 
or a for-profit company, it's vital for an organization to understand 
the big picture, to learn from the past and others, and to prepare for 
the future. With change comes both opportunities and risks. 
Furthermore, change is inevitable and essential for innovation. 
However, it's also important to understand how organizations and others 
can manage change. 

This evening, I was tempted to talk primarily about the megatrends and 
long-term challenges facing the United States and many other countries 
around the world. Frankly, such trends drive much of the work my 
agency, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), is doing 
today. GAO's strategic trends are forward looking, vertical, and 
horizontal in nature. They span geopolitical and economic sectors, and 
they're based on an environmental scan using input from our employees 
and many outside players, including futurists like Alvin Toffler and 
Edie Weiner, who serve on one of GAO's advisory committees. In fact, 
our strategic plan includes a number of trends and I'll touch on them 

But I realize I'm speaking to an audience that lives and breathes 
future-oriented issues. I suspect there's little I could tell you that 
hasn't already appeared in a futurist newsletter or been the subject of 
a panel discussion at this conference. 

So, while I will discuss a couple of the more significant long-term 
challenges facing the United States and the world community, I'm going 
to focus on the steps that government agencies like GAO can and should 
take to help position their governments for the future. This includes 
promoting improved governance structures to address a broad range of 
21st century challenges and capitalize on related opportunities. 

But, first, I think it's important to understand how myopia or 
shortsightedness can undermine a nation's willingness and ability to 
act. In the case of the United States, strong economic growth, modest 
inflation levels, relatively low interest rates, and our current 
superpower status have given many policymakers and the American public 
a false sense of security about our nation's current position and 
future prospects. Even though we know a demographic tsunami is building 
silently offshore--I'm referring to the impending retirement of our 
baby boom generation--America continues to party on and pile up record 
levels of debt. 

On the other hand, recent history shows that some nations have begun to 
act on their long-term challenges. For example, two nations chose to 
face their fiscal facts and made difficult decisions that caused some 
short-term pain in the interest of long-term gain. I'm speaking about 
Australia and New Zealand. Like the United States, these two countries 
have aging populations. However, unlike the United States, these two 
countries stepped up to the plate and took steps to deal with their 
long-range fiscal imbalances, including their overburdened and 
underfunded public entitlement programs. Australia and New Zealand are 
works in progress, but at least their leaders have addressed this 
large, known, and growing challenge. 

When it comes to fiscal and other public policy issues, Supreme Audit 
Institutions (SAI) can help focus attention on what lies ahead. Most 
governments have an SAI. In the case of the United States, it's my 
agency, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). In the case of 
Canada, it's the Office of the Auditor General, headed by my friend and 
colleague Sheila Fraser. 

Over the years, government auditors have earned a reputation for 
independence and professionalism. We're known for putting the facts on 
the table and providing policymakers with timely, reliable and 
objective information. Not everyone may like what we have to say, but 
we have an important role to play in promoting transparency, improving 
performance, ensuring accountability, and speaking truth to power. The 
truth is that sound policy choices are more likely when policymakers 
are equipped with solid facts and nonpartisan analyses rather 
ideological arguments and partisan political spin. 

SAIs have traditionally been in the oversight business. As government 
watchdogs, we scrutinize how taxpayer dollars are spent and advise 
policymakers on ways to make government work better. Many SAIs, 
including GAO, also undertake a range of insight activities designed to 
improve government effectiveness. These activities include performance 
and value-for-money audits and benchmarking and best-practices studies. 

I believe that in addition to providing oversight and insight work, 
SAIs can and should alert public officials to key emerging challenges 
and opportunities. I'm talking here about providing policymakers with 
valuable foresight. SAIs have several tools that can help bring a 
sharper focus to long-term policy issues. These tools include familiar 
practices like accrual accounting and program evaluation. But SAIs 
should also take advantage of other valuable methods that are well 
known to this audience, such as long-term modeling and scenario 

More than ever, SAIs have an opportunity to encourage early action on a 
range of important issues--before they reach crisis proportions and 
while they're still manageable. Today, GAO is working hard to help 
members of Congress better understand the trends and challenges facing 
the United States and its position in the world. We're also trying to 
help lawmakers grasp the long-term implications of current policy 

Our goal is for Congress to expand its horizon and its peripheral 
vision. We want policymakers to better understand where we, how we may 
look 30 or even 40 years out, and the collateral or ripple effects of 
various policies and programs. 

For example, New Zealand and other countries have adopted fiscal 
sustainability reporting and various other measures that ensure a long- 
term focus. If they can do it, then the United States and other 
countries can and should do so as well. 

In this spirit and in an effort to lead by example, GAO has published 
an unprecedented report called "21st Century Challenges" that asks a 
series of probing, sometimes provocative, questions about current 
government policies, programs, and operational practices. The report 
brings home how much of the U.S. government reflects organizational 
models, labor markets, life expectancies, transportation systems, 
security strategies, and other conditions that are rooted in the past. 
Clearly, the U.S. government isn't alone in this respect. In this 
report, we've also sought to communicate important foresight concepts 
in language used and understood by policymakers. By the way, you can 
find this report free on GAO's Web site at 

At the same time, our federal government, like many others, continues 
to expand, with new projects and initiatives added every year. Our 
Congress and the White House rarely seem to question the wisdom of 
existing federal activities. As former President Ronald Reagan once 
said, "The nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth 
is a government program." 

The same goes for many tax policies. For example, just this summer, the 
U.S. government announced it will stop collecting a 3-percent tax on 
long-distance telephone calls. This doesn't seem particularly startling 
until you realize that the tax had been introduced in 1898 to help pay 
for the Spanish-American War--a war that lasted only a few months! 

Congress and the President need to decide which federal programs and 
policies remain priorities, which should be overhauled, and which have 
simply outlived their usefulness. I'm sure many other countries could 
also benefit from this kind of "spring cleaning." 

So, what's been the reaction of policymakers to our 21st Century 
Challenges report? I'm pleased to say we're seeing some hopeful signs 
in several areas that GAO has highlighted. For example, our government 
is taking seriously the need to plan ahead for the possibility of a 
global influenza pandemic similar to the one in 1918, which killed 
millions worldwide. 

Our Congress is also keeping a closer eye on new trends on the nation's 
highways, particularly the growing role that high-tech driver 
distractions, like cell phones, are playing in traffic fatalities. 
We're also finally starting to see greater concern about our long-range 
fiscal imbalance and other key sustainability challenges like energy, 
health care, and the environment. Furthermore, recently proposed 
legislation would convene a commission of leaders to study entitlement 
and tax reform issues and recommend changes. 

To better meet Congress' information need on these emerging issues, GAO 
has developed an approach we call "grounded foresight." We believe that 
to be credible, foresight work must have a strong factual and 
conceptual basis. Such work needs to ground all trends in evidence. 
After all, everyone's entitled to their own opinion but not to their 
own facts! At the same time, such work also needs to clearly convey the 
uncertainty that's inherent in foresight analysis. 

Several key tools are available to encourage a forward focus. These 
tools include strategic planning, key national indicators, and scenario 
planning. Unfortunately, not all governments, including my own, have 
taken full advantage of these tools. 

The value of a strategic plan is probably obvious to everyone in this 
room. By thinking more comprehensively, learning from the past and 
others, and focusing on the future, governments can better set 
priorities, target their efforts, add value, reduce risks, manage 
change, and capitalize on new opportunities. After all, if you don't 
have a plan, you don't have a prayer of maximizing value and mitigating 

In our case, GAO's strategic plan defines our agency's mission, goals, 
and objectives. GAO's strategic plan also includes our agency's core 
values. These values represent our institutional beliefs and boundaries 
that are designed to be timeless in nature. Furthermore, our plan also 
includes a range of key public policy trends and challenges that 
warrant attention from lawmakers and our agency. Because these trends 
and challenges lack geopolitical and sectoral boundaries, they are also 
relevant for many other nations, including Canada. 

Acknowledging and understanding these trends have improved the 
contextual sophistication of our current work while helping us to 
maintain a focus on the future. These trends have also encouraged 
knowledge sharing both domestically and internationally. In turn, this 
has led to greater cooperation on a range of shared sustainability 
challenges, including fiscal, energy, environmental, and other key 

So what themes or trends does GAO expect to concentrate on in the 
coming years? Perhaps the most urgent issue is America's worsening 
financial condition and growing long-term fiscal imbalance. Long-term 
fiscal analyses by GAO and our sister agency in the legislative branch, 
the Congressional Budget Office, show that federal deficits will grow 
to unsustainable levels in as little as two decades. At that point, 
without significant policy changes, federal deficits could reach 10 
percent or more of our economy. States and local governments face 
increasing future fiscal pressures as well. Largely because of our 
aging population, rising health care costs, and relatively low revenues 
as a percentage of the economy, America faces decades of red ink. 

Clearly, a crunch is coming and eventually all of government will feel 
its impact. If America continues on its current course, it's only a 
matter of time before our ship of state hits the rocks. To put us on a 
more prudent and sustainable long-term path, the federal government 
must begin to make tough choices in connection with budget systems, 
legislative processes, entitlement programs, spending patterns, and tax 
policies. There's no way we will grow our way out of our fiscal hole. 
The sooner we begin to act, the better because, as the world's largest 
debtor nation, time is working against us. 

The fact is that many other nations also face long-term fiscal risks. 
For example, a 2005 European Union report warned of unsustainable 
public finances in about half of the European Union member states, 
primarily because of the growing old-age dependency ratio. 

As a citizen, a senior government official, and a father and 
grandfather, I take America's fiscal imbalance very seriously. It's not 
just a matter of numbers, it's also about values. It's easy to forget 
that deficits eventually have real-life consequences for real people, 
including our own children and grandchildren. As a result, I've been 
speaking out on this issue with increasing frequency and urgency in 
recent years. Raising public awareness, whether through audit reports, 
congressional testimony, speeches, radio commentaries, or opinion 
pieces, is an important part of GAO's and my foresight role. 

Some members of Congress seem to be getting the message, but it's going 
to take years of sustained effort to get America's fiscal problems 
under control. It's important that we do so, not just for our own sakes 
but also for the sake of the global economy. After all, as the old 
saying goes, when America catches a cold, the rest of the world may 
catch the flu. 

Beyond America's staggering fiscal challenge, GAO is keeping a close 
watch on several other long-term trends, many of which have no 
geopolitical boundaries. These trends include changing security 
threats, globalization of trade and financial markets, changing 
economic models, growing gaps between the haves and the have-nots, 
demographic changes, immigration patterns, energy supply and security 
issues, environmental concerns such as climate change and sustainable 
development, health care challenges, education needs, rapidly evolving 
science and technology, changing governance structures, and a range of 
other issues. 

Time doesn't allow me to address all of them. However, transforming 
existing governance structures is a theme that's especially important 
to GAO and worth elaborating on. As the pace of change accelerates in 
every aspect of life, national governments face new and more complex 
challenges that they cannot address alone. If we're to meet the 
public's wants and needs in light of the long-term trends I've just 
mentioned, governance systems in America and most other countries must 
be revised. 

In the 21st century, an effective governance structure recognizes that 
more and more policy challenges require multilateral action. We're also 
going to need greater coordination among various levels of government 
and the private and citizen sectors both domestically and 
internationally. The plain but simple truth is that no nation in 
today's world, including the United States, can or should go it alone. 

Beyond changing our governance approaches, we also need to consider how 
we keep score. In my view, key national and outcome-based indicators 
can help policymakers better assess a nation's status, its progress 
over time, and its position relative to other nations on issues like 
public safety, health care, housing, education, and the environment. 
Such indicators can help guide strategic planning, facilitate 
foresight, inform agenda setting, enhance performance and 
accountability reporting, and encourage more informed decision making 
and oversight, including much-needed and long-overdue efforts to 
reengineer the base of our federal government. 

Key indicator systems are now used by various supranational and 
international entities, including the European Union, the Organization 
for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the United 
Nations. For years now, several countries, including Australia, Canada, 
and the United Kingdom, and even some U.S. states and localities, have 
used indicators to prioritize and target public resources. It's time 
the U.S. government did so as well. However, rather than a strictly 
federal initiative, this needs to be a national effort enlisting all 
levels of government, businesses, think tanks, nonprofit groups, and 

We at GAO are working with the National Academies of Sciences, the 
OECD, and others to help make key national indicators a reality in the 
United States and elsewhere. Furthermore, the International 
Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions (INTOSAI), which serves as 
the umbrella organization for national audit offices worldwide, has 
adopted key national indicators as one of the two main themes for its 
2007 Global Congress in Mexico City. Representatives from over 150 
countries will address this topic and long-range fiscal challenges and 
related public debt issues. 

U.S. civilian agencies, including GAO, have started using another 
foresight tool long familiar to our defense agencies: scenario 
planning. For years, this technique has played an important role in 
GAO's work on America's long-range fiscal imbalance. More recently, 
we've used scenario planning concepts to assess our nation's 
preparedness for natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina. We've found 
that using a range of realistic scenarios helps agencies responsible 
for emergency preparedness to identify and address various risks and 
possible gaps in capabilities--before a catastrophe hits. These 
scenarios can also help to identify redundancies and conflicts that 
need to be addressed. 

But tools like strategic plans, key indicators, and scenario planning 
aren't enough. The truth is, with the range of complicated problems 
I've just described, nations, institutions, and individuals are going 
to need to change the way they think and act. Among other things, they 
will need to join forces and partner for progress. By applying our 
collective expertise and experience to shared challenges, we can vastly 
increase our chances for success while avoiding common mistakes. 

Politicians and civil servants must be willing to reach across 
institutional and geopolitical lines to share knowledge. Partnerships 
can be forged not only among various government agencies but with 
businesses and nonprofit groups. This approach can and should be used 
domestically as well as internationally. 

Fortunately, more countries are recognizing the need to partner for 
progress. As never before, Europe is working together and making 
strides on a range of issues of mutual interest and concern. So far, 
we've seen important reforms in areas like public finance, immigration, 
and the capital markets. 

The accountability profession, in which GAO is a leader, is also taking 
steps to focus on the future and partner for progress. For example, GAO 
led efforts to develop the first-ever strategic plan for INTOSAI. 
INTOSAI's members have enthusiastically embraced the plan, and it will 
undoubtedly help to raise the organization and its members to new 
heights in the years ahead. 

If we expect to successfully tackle the tough issues I've described 
tonight, we'll need more leaders in the United States and elsewhere 
with four key attributes. These attributes are courage, integrity, 
creativity, and stewardship. 

By courage, I mean people who state the facts, speak the truth, and do 
the right thing even if it isn't easy or popular. By integrity, I mean 
people who practice what they preach and lead by example. People who 
understand that the law and professional standards represent the floor 
of acceptable behavior. People who set their sights higher and strive 
to do what's right. By creativity, I mean people who can think outside 
the box and see new ways to address old problems. Individuals who have 
foresight and can help others see the way forward. Finally, by 
stewardship, I mean people who don't just generate positive results 
today but who also leave things better positioned for the future when 
they depart their jobs and this earth. That's what real stewardship is 
all about, and we don't have enough of it today. 

In closing, focusing on foresight is an important but often a thankless 
job. Frankly, it's a subject with too few constituents. Consumed with 
the everyday demands of work and family, the average citizen in most 
countries probably doesn't give foresight a lot of thought, much less 
demand their elected representatives adopt a forward focus. But the 
attendees at this conference are futurists as well as citizens. Whether 
you're from the United States, Canada, or elsewhere, I hope you'll lend 
your voice to this vital cause. It's time for our leaders in all 
sectors of society learn from the past and others while preparing for 
the future. It's in our collective best interests, as well as the 
interests of our countries, our children, and our grandchildren, for 
them to do so. 

Thank you for your time and attention. 

On the Web: 

Web site: [Hyperlink,]: 


Paul Anderson, Managing Director, Public Affairs,, 
(202) 512-4800, U.S. Government Accountability Office, 441 G Street NW, 
Room 7149, Washington, D.C. 20548: 


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