Future Search in Government 

 Elected and appointed officials are pulled in many directions with more and more interest groups clamoring for their voices to be heard and their needs to be met. Agencies throughout government are challenged to include these voices in both planning and implementation. Often, the way this is done can determine success or failure. In addition, it is impossible for governmental agencies to act in isolation anymore. Agencies with overlapping mandates are forced to consider joint planning efforts.

One Example

The Utah Transportation Authority had been struggling with the fact that the public expected them to solve everyone’s transit problems. Agency leaders knew they couldn’t do this alone. They had to get more information about people’s transit needs, wanted this to happen in a non-adversarial way and knew they could not go forward without the support and collaboration of local jurisdictions and interest groups.

They decided to join together with other agencies in the region to organize a Future Search. After months of making sure that all voices were included, The Community Partners for Urban Mobility brought together local officials, transit riders, special needs riders, community groups, state political leaders and others for the Future Search with an invitation to “Join the Revolution on Transit Issues along the Wasatch Front of Eastern Utah.”

The conference resulted in participants developing a deeper understanding of the complexity of the situation and why there was a need for broad participation and cooperation. Local elected officials learned how they could fit into the picture. Local interest groups found how they could affect the outcome through real participation in planning and implementation rather than opposition. One transit official said at the de-briefing with facilitators, “I know my action team’s work is going to make a difference. This is worth many times the effort we put into it.” 

Video: Fermanagh Youth Future Search. Northern Ireland, UK

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How Future Search can help increase public participation in Government

Future Search focuses on commonly shared values to generate vision and action. Participants build a commitment to action from a shared foundation. They are encouraged to speak from their own experience – acknowledging everyone’s reality, perception and experience. Full participation results in broad buy-in to the outcomes of the process. This avoids the trap many governments get into where they are unable to effectively implement the outcomes of planning efforts because they haven’t built a consensus of support.  Future Search could be called democracy in action. Planners, politicians, community members, government personnel, business people, public safety agencies, non-profits and others join together in a common, focused conversation, giving each a chance to fully voice their perspective. People of all races, ages, demographic cultures and economic means come together to work collaboratively. Diversity shifts from being a problem, to becoming a constructive ally. Future Search builds the kind of involvement and shared ownership that drives sustainable, positive and implementable results. 

Some of the ways Future Search has been used in Government

At every level of government some amount of public participation, if done successfully, can greatly improve the process. Whether the public needs to be directly involved or not, most cases of project planning or implementation require hearing from a number of critical voices.  Here are some examples where effective stakeholder involvement can greatly improve the process:

  • Planning, zoning, or other similar public processes
  • Developing or amending a general plan
  • Implementing a general plan in areas such as housing
  • Regional planning on issues such as transportation, land use, economic development or sewage disposal
  • Departmental re-organization, closure or merger
  • Building a new agency, bringing in a new top manager, establishing a new commission or learning to work with a new group of elected officials
  • Improving and implementing service delivery systems
  • Commercial expansion, real estate development or other projects requiring public approval
  • Environmental and development issues
  • Community planning
  • Integrated economic development


Federal Aviation Administration
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a United Stated government agency whose mission “is to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world,” were worried about gridlock in the skies. Despite profound cynicism and years of meetings, they invited a diverse slice of the system, users, regulators and technical experts, to the Future Search.  A historic breakthrough occurred on the third day when one of the airline executives said he was ready to work with others on the “first-come, first-serve norm. “There is no one else to blame, we’re all here. We need to look at ourselves to see the solutions to the problems.”  Together they created a strategy to minimize delays and redistribute the pain that everyone was ready to put in place.

» Centre of Government, Flanders, Belgium
The Center of Government in Flanders was preparing for a new vision, mission and strategy in order to become more efficient before the new government was installed. The results were validated by the Prime Minister of the new Flanders Government. The results also formed the base for a restructuring where three separate departments chose to merge into one, led by the Secretary General of the Center of Government. He was very sure that Future Search was the way forward. The former leaders have been partly replaced by young potentials, which prompted new dynamics. Today the department achieves more with fewer people.

State of Vermont, USA
Department of Buildings and General Services (400+ employees) examined their internal services and needs during a 3-day Future Search. As a result, nine action teams collaborated on new ways of working. Their successful outcomes were presented to the Commissioner.

Copenhagen, Denmark
Municipal management of four major cities sponsored Future Search with the following focus — What will the working future look like for the administrative municipal staff? They created new alignment around how to prepare, educate and develop competencies that was more responsive to their changing environment and more in line with staff need.

U.S. Army, Washington D.C. USA
The U.S. Army used Future Search to create a strategic framework for leadership development. While the application was perceived to be a big step for the leadership, given the hierarchic culture of the army, their experience was a surprising amalgam of energy and good ideas. They created a vision and plans that were motivating for the soldiers and civilians and consistent with enduring Army values.  Not long after the U.S. Department of Defense ran a Future Search to create a strategy for military families living on military bases.  With diverse stakeholders, including military families, they created programs for families and youth that made a significant difference in these family’s lives.

Fermanagh Youth Future Search. Northern Ireland, UK (see video above)
The 2013 G8 Summit was held in Lough Erne, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland.  The Fermanagh Trust recognizing this opportunity facilitated bringing together over 100 young people.  These young people now had the unique opportunity to tell the leaders of the western world what they wanted for their future. The youth, ages 16 – 25, discussed their most urgent issues. They wanted to look beyond the current economic crisis to visualize what their ideal world could look like in 10 years. The four key issues were Education, Poverty, Health and Peace.  During the summit, the young people presented their communiqué to distinguished guests including the Secretary of State, the U.S. Consulate, EU representatives and MLAs. Feedback was extremely positive and the participants were congratulated on their hard work. Theresa Villiers said “I would very much welcome the points you’ve made and completely agree that they are crucially important issues facing the global community”. The communiqué was brought to the leaders at the Summit one month later.