CHESTER HAS MOVED!: Scenario Planning at the National Intelligence Council

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Scenario Planning at the National Intelligence Council

A long, long time ago – maybe in November -- an Alert Reader asked for more info about strategic planning and/or jointness. Don't know if that Alert Reader is still out there, but there are some interesting things about this floating around the blogosphere today. The International Futures Model (IFs) website, (ht: danieldrezner.com :: Daniel W. Drezner via Instapundit), run by the National Intelligence Council, allows anyone in the public to model their own version of what the world will look like in the future.
This powerful tool allows users to generate in-depth, year-by-year projections through 2020 for a large number of variables. Topics covered include demographic, economic, energy, sociopolitical and environmental factors. IFs can be displayed at the country specific level, and results can be aggregated for regions of the world. Users can display forecasts in tables and on maps or graphically. pre-computed forcasts exist foor the Ifs base case and for the four scenarios of the National Intelligence Council's 2020 Project. users can also easily create their own scenariso. The forecasts of Ifs should be treated as illustrations of possible futures rather than predictions. In addition to enabling its users to look forward, IFs also contains data on 160 countries stretching back more than forty years.
This is fascinating stuff for several reasons. First, just having an online forum for the general public to use this info and this tool is a great way to foster discussion. Second, the existence of a tool like this, geared toward modeling alternative futures and not just predicting the correct one, means that the ideas of "scenario planning" are getting to be in vogue in the National Security Community. These ideas have been "popularized" by Philip C Bobbitt, who holds a PhD in Strategy from Oxford, and a JD in Law from Yale, and teaches Constitutional Law at the University of Texas in Austin. I first discovered Bobbitt when reading this opinion piece he wrote in the New York Times last in 2003:
For nearly 50 years, American decision-makers could rely on forms of "strategic planning" — a method that begins with choosing a desired result and then plotting the decisions that will have to be made to reach that goal. Strategic planning worked well in the two-power world because we were able to extrapolate from a relatively stable and familiar security environment, relying on more or less agreed-upon intelligence estimates. Governments sought the likeliest linear future, and planned accordingly. Unfortunately, in an increasingly decentralized world, in which previously insignificant actors and factors can play a decisive role, strategic planning can leave decision-makers flat-footed. In its unidimensional reliance on a single future, strategic planning hardens the "official future" agencies internalize, and thus prepares them poorly for appreciating rapid changes in circumstance and for making agile adaptations.
Bobbitt then explains "scenario planning" as an alternative:
In this new era of uncertainty, not only must we must accept that simple forecasting is not going to be very useful to us, we must sharpen our skills of forethought. One way will be to augment traditional strategic planning with "scenario planning," a strategy that has long been a staple at the largest multinational corporations. Scenario planning involves the creation of alternative narratives about the future based on different decisions — by many players — as each scenario progresses. As opposed to the classic strategic method of applying the past to the future — coming up with a single, likeliest story about how things will turn out — scenario planning is about applying the future to the present, creating a learning framework for decisions. The idea is not so much to predict the future as to consider the forces that will push the future along different paths, in order to help leaders recognize new possibilities, assess new threats and make decisions that reach much further into the future. Scenario planning can also exploit the changes under way in intelligence collection — especially the greater emphasis on human sources. Unlike strategic planning, which tends to rely on quantitative and technical information like population figures and productivity reports, scenario planning tends to use more qualitative and dynamic data. It depends in large part on studying economic, political and social trends. Scenario planning at Royal Dutch Shell, where I am a senior adviser, helped the corporation become one of the most profitable oil conglomerates. In the early 1970's, its scenario planners worked on hypothetical futures involving an oil boycott against the West; when political events finally brought about the Arab oil crisis, the company not only wasn't taken by surprise, it was in a position to capitalize. In the 1990's Shell analysts were scenario-planning a potential backlash against global companies, long before the antiglobalization movement took off. Thus, while most companies reacted to the new movement with corporate disdain, Shell was courting nongovernmental groups and decentralizing its global operations so that decisions in foreign divisions could be made by people living in and sensitive to the countries affected. Getting the government to emphasize scenario planning will not be easy. To be successful, the approach depends on well-organized dialogue between decision makers at many levels, which would be culture shock for the rigidly hierarchical executive branch. (Indeed, despite the efforts of advocates like Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, to get Washington interested in scenario planning, only one country, Singapore, has made extensive use of the practice.) Our various national security agencies may not be competitive businesses, but they often behave toward each other as if they were. Intelligence is often "stovepiped" — when analysts refuse to share information and sources with interagency rivals working on the same problems — and mutually distrustful cultures abound. Also, scenario planning requires a political culture that is tolerant of uncertainty. Contingencies of uncertain probability tend to be of little interest to politicians, who are confident they know the future. Similarly, competing scenarios are anathema to bureaucrats whose careers are threatened by answering questions like, "What would it take for this estimate to be dramatically wrong?" — which translates to, "What arguments can you give me that undermine your own recommendations?" To change this culture, we need an interagency working group that can organize scenario planning for a new era. It should be headed by the senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council, and should include the director of policy planning at the State Department, the chairman of the National Intelligence Council, the political-military director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the assistant secretary of Defense for strategic and threat reduction, and a senior representative of the Treasury secretary. This body would be charged with coordinating the work and circulating the results of scenario planning by a team made up of veteran government analysts and, perhaps, experienced people from the private sector.
Being an advocate of "jointness," The Adventures of Chester would like to point out the inherent joint nature of this type of thinking about the future. Bobbitt argues that without a joint commitment to its success from various parts of the federal government, such planning will fail. If any readers use the scenario planning site to model the future, send an email with the results. Remember, it's about creating different scenarios that could be true, not seeing whose is the best prediction. More on "jointness:" here: The Failure of the Intelligence Reform Bills, here: "Jointness" is catching on, here: A Colonial Corps? and here: Colonial Operations and Strategic Communication.

17 Comments:

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Chester,

I only took a quick look, but it seems like a pretty cool tool. I posted a link to it at Belmont Club.

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