Horizon Scanning and the AJASN

[Originally published on the Australian Government Public Sector Innovation Network under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

One of the things we aim to do with the Innovation Blog is to discuss tools, strategies and approaches that can assist or supplement the innovation process in public sector organisations. In this post we give a brief look at horizon or environmental scanning.

Recently a colleague and I had the opportunity to attend a meeting of the Australasian Joint Agencies Scanning Network (or AJASN). The AJASN is a group of representatives from government agencies and others that meet quarterly to undertake horizon scanning.

For the public sector, horizon or environmental scanning is about identifying trends, themes and potential new developments that may affect policy or services. It may identify new or changing risks and opportunities or areas where further research is needed or capability needs to be developed.

Basically it is about being aware of what may be coming so that this can be factored into planning. Innovation in the public sector is often driven by particular problems – so it pays to be aware of potential problems early.

What does horizon scanning look like in practice? For the previous three months, members of the Network added news items to a database from a range of sources (journals, newspapers, blogs, etc). Each of these ‘scans’ summarised the relevant item and identified possible implications.

At the end of the quarter, each member of the Network went through the scans and thought about possible trends or emerging themes.

We came together (13 people at this meeting) and then went around the table identifying what each of us identified out of the scans. Due to the agency composition of the group, a number of the issues centred around the natural environment, but it included discussion of broader areas such as business and public sector trends.

For each issue raised, other members would add other scans that they saw as linked or discuss other possible interpretations. Over the course of the meeting we identified about 15 items – either potentially new developments, areas to watch, or updates on items from previous meetings of the Network.

To me, this was a really useful way of pulling together a whole lot of seemingly unconnected information and making sense of it in terms of a small number of topics. The different perspectives and understandings of the scans by each member of the groups were also enlightening. It helped me to think about these issues in ways I wouldn’t normally and opened my mind to different insights.

Such horizon scanning can be applied by individual areas or organisations. By identifying trends and possible implications for our work in the public sector we can be better aware of the opportunities for innovation. We can also consider how our current work may be disrupted and think about what skills and capabilities we might need to respond.

We would be interested to hear if other agencies undertake this sort of activity, and what they find it useful (or not useful) for. Have you had any experience with horizon scanning in the public sector?

The Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research is currently a member of the AJASN. The AJASN is a commercially run network. The above discussion of the AJASN is opinion only and should not be read as endorsement or otherwise.