Business and government interactions – prototyping a way to better detect emerging issues

In a world that seems to be changing all the time, how do you keep across everything that is relevant to how your work is changing? This is the key question we are trying to explore through our prototyping of a platform for ‘Emerging Issues Detection’ as part of the business and government interactions project.

We are seeking your help and participation in the prototyping. This post gives a quick overview, asks for your help with the prototyping, and provides an expanded explanation of just what ‘Emerging Issues Detection’ is and why something like it is needed (in addition to what was provided in the Lost in Translation report and the prototyping prospectus).

Summary

The Emerging Issues Detection concept is based on the belief that the earlier a change in how (and on what) business and public sector agencies might interact is anticipated, the smoother the possible transition to that changed state of interactions will likely be.

If a change in the form of interactions occurs for businesses and/or for the public sector with no notice, it is likely that the transition will be messier than it would have been if there had been more notice and opportunity to prepare.

Increasingly the relevant context for any businesses cuts across agency, jurisdiction and policy lines. Therefore it is harder for any one public servant within any one agency to identify the emerging issues relevant to the businesses that they interact with. The ability to do so requires access to the intelligence held by multiple agencies, firms and others as well as the ability to integrate disparate signs and trends.

It is proposed that the Australian Public Service could be better at this, but that in order for this to happen there needs to be some form of ‘Emerging Issues Detection’ capability that can better capture signs and intelligence that point to how interactions might change over time. Such a capability would allow public servants and those with relevant experience and knowledge outside of the public service to contribute to the reframing of specific issues and processes, in order to be better positioned and organised to address them.

The intent of such a capability would be to better share cross-agency intelligence, to improve methods for sharing and receiving intelligence from industry and academic stakeholders, and to better identify emerging issues that might reshape how business and government interact with each other.

In many ways this might be similar to existing environment and horizon scanning activity that occurs within the public service. Yet it would also need to build on this – to recognise that the people who may be able to make sense of the disparate and divergent scans and signals might sometimes be on the outside of the public service, and to open up the process of identifying and filtering information to others.

How can I become involved in the prototyping process?

We are looking for help from individual business people, business intermediaries and public servants.1  Effective prototyping needs the involvement of the people who share in the problem, both public servants and those in industry.

If you are interested in the concept of an ‘Emerging Issues Detection’ capability for the APS then the first thing we’d like to ask is that you sign up to our Emerging Issues Detection mailing list. We’ll be using the list to provide updates on the prototyping and to seek your input and involvement.

The second thing we’d like to ask is for you to help us with some real world examples.

  1. Do you have any examples of how a capability to detect and consider emerging issues would be, or would have been, useful in your work? Or examples of when you had to create a work-around because there wasn’t such a capability? Some more specific examples of how an Emerging Issues Detection capability might be used would be extremely useful for us in scoping the need, and if/how it might/could work. Please email through any examples you might have
  2. Do you have any examples of where such a capability already exists? If so we’d love to hear from you. It might be in Australia or somewhere else, and it might be in areas other than business and government interactions.

We are also interested in hearing from businesses, industry groups or public sector agencies who might be interested in partnering to work on the prototyping of the Emerging Issues Detection concept.

Some additional information about the concept follows, including a basic visual depiction of what would be the ideal (but impossible) state, what happens now, and what, hopefully, might be possible if the Emerging Issues Detection capability was realised.

A depiction of three settings. The first is labelled 'The ideal (for the interaction and the context)' and shows two figures facing each other with one having a speech bubble saying 'I know who you are and what you want from this interaction' and the second with a speech bubble saying 'I understand what you can and cannot do and why'. They are surrounded by words describing the environment they are in - 'certainty', 'stability', 'mutual agreement about policy aims and processes', 'long-standing relationship' and 'sophisticated and mature information sharing systems'. The second scene is labelled 'The Current Situation'. The first figure in this scene is saying 'I assume I understand your context but I'm not entirely sure, and to be honest I don't know all of the things impacting your industry, let alone your particular business'. The second figure is saying 'I'm concerned about my business and I have to admit that I haven't been keeping track of all the policy discussions or what's happening to your agency or why these processes and policies have changed'. Their environment is described as 'rapidly changing business environment', 'new processes', 'new threats and challenges', ad hoc, incomplete and dispersed knowledge about issues', 'new technologies and business models', and 'new opportunties'. The third scene is labelled 'What might be possible'. The first figure is saying 'I know your industry and business environment is changing and I understand how my work relates to those changes'. The second figure is saying 'I can easily find out what industry/business issues you are interested in and why'. Both figures are jointly saying 'We can both easily share evidence and anecdotes about emerging issues'. Their environment is described as 'rapidly changing business environment', 'new processes', 'new threats and challenges', shared platform for detecting emerging issues that might impact on future interactions', 'new technologies and business models', and 'new opportunities'.

Background Information

What is the context for emerging issues detection?

When the context for interactions keeps changing, and thereby changing the nature of the interactions, how can you improve the interactions?

Once upon a time it was possible to be across an industry sector, a market, a region or a policy area and build up a relatively stable network of contacts and be comfortable that you knew the main sources of reliable information.2 An individual public servant could have a fair understanding of the context of their stakeholders. And if you understand someone’s context, then you can be confident that you can communicate effectively with them and understand their concerns and needs. An understanding of context sets the scene for good interactions.

But these days there seem to be greater rates of change and blurring of things (policies, markets, sectors, industries) that were once relatively distinct. Converging disruptive trends are changing the face of industry sectors. It is much harder to be sure that you know and understand the context of the industry players – whether that be who they are, what they want, where they are from, what they value, how they are changing, and where they might be heading.

In other words – think of an industry sector, and think how fast it is changing now compared to five, ten, twenty or forty years ago. How much more do you think you might need to know now to have a comprehensive grasp of the sector, and the relevant policy issues, than you did at any of those times?

If we consider the trend of ‘disintermediation’ (the removal of intermediaries in supply chains) as an example, it is already having an effect on a number of industries. Platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, WordPress and many others mean that anyone can be potentially a media player, even if only in a small way. The production and broadcast of content was once limited to a few players limited by geographic region (and legal jurisdictions) whose compliance was easily monitored. Now there are millions of content producers, from all over the world.

This is playing out in many other areas as well. In the energy sector, the growth in homes with solar panels has increased the number of energy ‘producers’ dramatically (though most of them also remain energy market consumers at the same time). In tourism, a platform such as Airbnb increases the number of potential ‘accommodation providers’ enormously. 3D printing may introduce a large number of ‘makers’ that where once there were only larger manufacturing businesses. And Silk Road and any other such Internet platforms for illicit drug sales/provision demonstrate that such trends are not limited to legal industries.

This expansion of potential market players exacerbates the difficulty for a public servant/public sector agency to know who are the key businesses and contacts in an industry sector, market or region. Whereas once they might have had a ready network who could give them a sense of emerging issues that might need (or that provoke) a government response, now such networks might be much more fragmented and less comprehensive.

There are a number of other trends that are contributing to the changing context of industries and markets:

  • Staff turnover/role change in both public and private sectors – it is harder to build up reliable networks if the key contacts change too often
  • Internationalisation – more and different industry players as markets become increasingly international and open to new entrants with differing business models and expectations of government
  • Blurring – there is sectoral crossover as previously discrete sectors and technologies become interlinked (e.g. ICT and every other sector), expanding the field of relevant knowledge to that sector
  • Intersection of policies – in an interconnected world, policies also interlink, though the people best placed to know that will be those who experience the problem, not necessarily those in the public sector.

This all feeds into our concept of emerging issues detection – that public servants have access to ever greater amounts of information but need a way to filter and distil the key trends that might reshape their interactions with businesses and that might spur changes from government.

The earlier a change is flagged and considered, the greater the flexibility the public sector will have in dealing with an emerging trend. The earlier these issues can be identified, monitored and assessed, the better the chance that both sides of the interaction will be aware of it, factor it in to how they interact with each other, and respond appropriately if needed.

Where a possible shift is not anticipated, this can have flow-on effects in how interactions with businesses proceed, whether it be in terms of providing relevant and accurate information, in engaging on the right questions and issues in consultations, in trying to address the right problems, or in the general tenor of relationships with business.

So the problem is?

The problem to be addressed is that we are in an ever changing environment, and the context of the other side of the interaction keeps changing, and sometimes changing very quickly. What may have been true a year ago may no longer be so, and the other side may now have different issues, concerns, needs or motivations.

Our understanding of the motivations and needs of each side of the interaction (businesses and public sector agencies) has to keep evolving. But the experience, knowledge and insight to shape that understanding may be distributed across public sector agencies, across industry players, or in other areas completely.

Our research indicates that the Australian Public Service can often deal with this problem well on an individual issue/agency basis, but that there are weaknesses when it comes to picking up on issues that cut across agency responsibilities, or that cut across sectoral or professional lines. We think there are opportunities to do this better, and to take advantage of the knowledge and experience of those who come face to face with the issues early on.

We look forward to working with those of you interested in this topic to flesh out what an ‘Emerging Issues Detection’ capability might look like.

  1. Participation may mean involvement in workshops, contributing to a survey, providing feedback, or other forms of contribution. The scope of the prototyping process will depend a lot on the level and spread of interest. 
  2. Though like all stories beginning with ‘once upon a time’ this may not be true. But it was certainly more true than it is now.