Nothing less than a transformation in the people, processes, and technology of the U.S. federal government will be necessary if the nation is to meet its policy goals in the coming period of rapid change, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. A new GAO report provides a broad view of the major economic, geopolitical, and societal issues that will make up and affect policy across numerous sectors in the coming decades.
“The United States faces a range of major sustainability challenges that need urgent attention in such areas as government financing, defense and homeland security, Iraq, immigration, education, energy, environment, foreign policy, health care, and our nation’s critical infrastructure. Many of these challenges transcend geopolitical and sectorial bound-aries,” writes David M. Walker, the U.S. comptroller general, in his introduction to the report, “Forces That Will Shape America’s Future: Themes From GAO’s Strategic Plan, 2007-2012.”
One of the key issues demanding new policies is the multifaceted nature of the security threats facing the United States. During previous eras such as the Cold War, the job of the active military, national guard, and local law enforcement agencies was clearly defined, but the complex and disaggregated nature of today’s threats is placing many agencies and institutions in unfamiliar roles. Non-state criminal entities-using tactics that range from terrorism to drug trafficking-have replaced clearly defined states as the major threat to the United States.
In addition, transnational crime and even natural disasters and public health should receive greater consideration as security threats. “Meeting the nation’s defense needs in the future may prompt decision makers to reexamine fundamental aspects of the nation’s national security programs, such as how the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security plan and budget to best mitigate risk within current and expected resource levels to respond to these various threats,” Walker states.
A rise in the proportion of older people in the United States will further stress the government’s ability to provide a social safety net for its most vulnerable citizens. Like most of the rest of the developed world, the United States is moving from a state of high birth and death rates to a state of low birth and death rates. The result of these forces is that growth in the U.S. labor force will slow to the point of decline by 2050, which will have implications for Medicare and Social Security trust funds.
The growing disparity in income distribution will also affect the nation’s long-term health, the report concludes, and may well intensify as the United States continues its transition away from manufacturing toward services. High-tech service jobs tend to require more education, but the rising price of higher education makes a college degree unattainable (or at least more expensive) for working-class families, further exacerbating the wealth gap.
Additionally, the United States will continue to grow more racially and ethnically diverse, giving way to a “significant shift in its racial com-position.” The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that, while the white population would grow from 195 million to 210 million by 2050, their share of the nation’s population will decrease from 69.4% to 50.1%, the Hispanic population (of all races) would increase its proportion from 12.6% million to 24.4%.
“The government will need to consider how best to promote and build consensus on core civic values that are important to all Americans. Also, policymakers will need to consider the demographics of diversity as they reexamine existing programs and design new programs,” the report states.
Each of these specific issue areas may be the focus of one particular government program, committee, or institution. But dealing effectively with all of them-and their accelerating evolution-will require unprecedented collaboration and consensus among mutiple government bodies.
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, July-August 2007.