Like many great initiatives, it all started with a Skype presentation……

It was June 2015. The CPSI and UNDP South Africa, supported by the Regional Innovation Facility in Addis Ababa, were co-hosting a SADC-UNPAN[1] knowledge sharing workshop, aimed at building regional capacity on public sector innovation and governance. The theme of the workshop, three months before the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was aptly “Enhancing Regional Integration for Sustainable Development through UNPAN”.

Two of the anchor presentations at the workshop were done via Skype, introducing the work of the Global Centre for Public Service Excellence (GCPSE) and a second presentation specifically focusing on their Empowered Futures initiative (Foresight).  One thing led to the other and in late November the GCPSE conducted a Foresight exercise in Mauritius and in December co-hosted with UNDP SA and CPSI a dedicated Foresight workshop in Johannesburg, attended by 13 African countries.  By the end of 2016 most of these countries either had workshops conducted or had high-level engagements with the GCPSE – and in the process, the GCPSE imparted skills to the CPSI.  Not to bad an outcome for a Skype presentation[2]

Fast forward to March 2017 and another Skype presentation to a sub-national group of planners and policy makers in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province.  Having done an assessment of their performance, they were frustrated with the limitations of a log-frame based planning process and were looking for ways to perfect their implementation and monitoring processes.  The presentation came at the right time and there was an appetite to explore Foresighting further. An enthusiastic team from  ECSECC (Eastern Cape Socio Economic Consultative Council) expressed their interest in partnering with the UNDP on Strategic Foresight.

Meanwhile, back at the United Nations (UN) offices in Pretoria, the visioning team was grappling with initiating the process required to develop a new Strategic Cooperation Framework (SCF) and aligning it with the country’s 5-year implementation planning cycles, of the National Development Plan (NDP): Vision 2030 and the monitoring of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Considering the UN Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) guidelines on the one hand and partnership agreements with government on the other, the team decided that it cannot just promote Foresighting, it should also practice what it preaches.  The UNDP partnerships also emphasised a second principle – reciprocity, that the best in both parties should be leveraged to achieve maximum mutual benefit. So, the CPSI, capacitated by the GCPSE, not only supported the sub-national engagements in the Eastern Cape but also availed capacity to support the UN Country Team (UNCT) visioning process.

[1] The United Nations Public Administration Network (UNPAN)

[2] There were obviously many additional engagements between the GCPSE and country offices and engagements facilitated by the regional coordinator in Addis Ababa that ensured that the Empowered Futures initiative was so successful in the period between 2015 and 2018.

The scene was set for testing the concept of using Foresight in the joint planning processes, it was an exciting opportunity when the United Nations Development Group’s Delivering Together Innovation Facility allocated $50 000 to a joint UN proposal on foresighting to get the ball rolling.

We had a project name; a working hypothesis and the team was ready to go.  As names go, there is the jargon version to satisfy the technocrats: Innovating Together for the 2030 Agenda: Use of Foresight to Develop and Monitor a new UNDAF/Strategic Country Framework for UN in South Africa 2019-2024 and a local name (don’t even try to pronounce): Sicwangcisela Ingomso: Planning for The Future; and for the hypothesis that became a motivator that nudged planners away from classical planning, the UN Visioning team agreed that

IF the UN continues to engage with, and support the country and development partners in the same way as in the past, using conventional planning and programming techniques, THEN it will fail to imagine and anticipate some of the key trends and innovations needed to change the country’s development trajectory towards meeting the 2030 NDP and SDG goals.

Just to recap, this is what was envisaged:

Joint foresight sessions, focussing on key priorities for the national long-term planning process would be conducted, culminating in the development of Empowered Futures.   These Futures will not only guide the respective planning processes but will also point to interventions and innovations that will be required to significantly alter the current delivery trajectory.  The foresight sessions would then be followed by a formalised process to incorporate the outcomes into the departmental planning and the UN – SCF.  But we were not going to stop there…  South Africa is pretty good in developing future scenarios.  Our Mont Fleur Scenarios are after all in the UNDP Foresight Manual.  Unfortunately, officials and elected representatives are not always agile and adaptive enough to prevent a negative scenario from materialising.  Thus, the aim was to move beyond just incorporating Foresight into the planning process.  The process would also have to, over the medium term, change the very nature and content of programme management: making government and UN actions more anticipatory and catalytic, whilst building agility and adaptiveness into the systems and processes.

Eastern Cape story

The March 2017 Skype presentation to delegates at a provincial conference on the provincial and national development plan kickstarted a conversation between the province, business development agencies, academics and UN agencies.  There was consensus that the current approaches are not adequate and that Foresight should be explored.

The UN roped in the support of the CPSI and an expert with more than 30 years of scenario planning experience, whilst the province coordinated the participation of a very diverse group of stakeholders from business, government, academics and NGOs.

The first session’s orientation related to participants on the basics of Foresight, Horizon Scanning and Scenario Planning and the province shared an analysis of the current state of service delivery. Discussions gravitated towards economic issues (including the oceans economy) and governance for which scenarios were developed and wild cards introduced.

Key Flags to Watch for South Africa1:

  • Crime and corruption
  • Quality of services: Education, Health & Infrastructure
  • Leadership style (personality cult)
  • Genuine Economic Freedom, Entrepreneurship
  • Land Reform
  • Pockets of Excellence

UNCT and DPME Story

The UN Country Team side of the story developed slightly different.  The country team was in the process of mapping out its roadmap for the next planning cycle, there was a clear need to align planning with the SDGs and National Development Plan: Vision 2030, and a clear demand for better integration and delivery as one for the UN in South Africa.

However, where foresight would fit into the picture, given the familiarity with log frame-type of approaches and the vast programme development experience was another question?  How do you integrate Theory of Change and Foresight?  What organising principles do you use? How to you justify planning for something that is uncertain and unpredictable.  These were just some of the (very valid) questions posed.

Through a series of engagements, some smaller, some more extensive, the UN visioning team was able to establish strong consensus that the focus-areas should be aligned to the triple challenges identified by the country (inequality, unemployment and poverty) and how to support the Department of Planning Monitoring and Evaluation (DPME).

One of the initial achievements was to embark on a joint planning trip/journey where Foresight and other support, such as MAPS (Mainstreaming, Acceleration and Policy Support for the 2030 Agenda) are incorporated.  Importantly, the journey has been a joint journey, based on mutual trust and reciprocity. The contiguous engagements, formal and informal between the country team and government, nationally and in the Eastern Cape, helped to distil thinking.

What should still be done?

The planning processes of both the country team and the DPME has been impacted by an extension of the current SCF, meaning that a new SCF would most likely commence in April 2020. The planning process continues, and the country team’s roadmap to developing a news SCF should be concluded before the end of 2019.  Then the major challenges will be to ensure that the future is monitored, flags and weak signals noticed (anticipatory governance), resilience built in and agility embedded.

What have we learnt?

The various orientation sessions and workshops helped reframe the thinking of all participants and draw them out of planning paralysis. Those responsible for planning also acknowledged that most, if not all of them may not be in the same position when planning is implemented.  Planners therefore have to respect the implementers of the future and design planning documents with them in mind.

It took a while to navigate the methodology space. There is a constant risk of, for the sake of compliance, to select a particular method, put a process in motion and tick the boxes.  Finding a balance between showing progress and allowing for truly creative and innovative “deep dives” into root causes, failures, successes and potential futures is not that easy.

Using Richard Lum’s formula: STOCS + TEI + Ins + Int = futuresalt the team was able to frame their activities and locate Foresight within a broader Theory of Change approach.

To realise (an) alternative future(s) a Theory of Change and Stability should be combined with Trends and Emerging Issues, Inspiration and Intuition. Inspiration was drawn from the Mandela 100 initiatives and Intuition allowed for a strong focus on innovation.  It should also be noted that, with regards to the innovation part Design Thinking and approaches such as Behavioural Insights are promoted to actualise change.

Practical application does not have to wait for formal planning documents to be finalised and approved.  One example is the DPME already including Foresight into their preparatory work towards setting national annual and 5-year mandates and priorities.

For the UN in South Africa there is a need for an interaction on Foresighting, to tie up the process on Visioning that was started in late 2017, has now been identified. It is now being recognised that due to the fluidity of the country’s developmental and political landscape, there is a ned for a much high-level strategic discussion on joint planning with the government for the next SCF cycle. Furthermore, with changes abound within the UN system, the Reform of the United Nations Development System provides the UN with an opportunity to use the changes to develop a new SCF with the relevant organisational support systems and capacities which will be agile and responsive to the country’s development challenges.


1 Source: Chantel Illbury,