The Future of Public Services; Innovations in Online Scenario Planning, Part 2

The following mini-scenarios were created using the SenseMaker Suite Scenarios approach developed for my PhD with Dave Snowden and Wendy Schultz.   They were auto-aggregated using narrative fragments contributed by over 265 participants from around the world.  In other words, participants submitted stories of the future, tagged them, and then the system clustered them based on affinity and representative values.  These were then boiled down into these three scenarios.

From start to finish (not counting R&D experimentation, process creation, etc.) this process took a little under two weeks of effort to collect the stories, aggregate and interpret them.  No interviews, workshops or background research exercises were conducted.  Unlike Futurescaper, this process is entirely inductive and does not use any drivers analysis, axes of uncertainty, 2×2 matrices or any similar technique.

These obviously aren’t final scenarios or fully fleshed out narratives.  But they do demonstrate the power of crowdsourced approaches to creating narrative archetypes of future events.  They could easily be developed into more robust scenario narratives with a little bit more work.  I’ll provide a more detailed explanation of the process soon, but in the mean time, click here to view details on who participated and what some of the meta-results were.

On a final note, these were completed almost a year ago; before the Tory election in the UK and the subsequent protests in London. Looking back on how the last year has progressed, some aspects seem scarily prescient (particularly Orwell, Redux).  What do you think?

Scenarios Overview

Participants were asked to tell a story in response to one of the following questions:

  • What is the future of public service provision under financial uncertainty?
  • How will governments and cities adapt to managing public resources under increasing constraints?
  • What factors will be critical for public service provision in the coming decade?

We received over 265 responses ranging from a single sentence to several pages.  Participants coded their own response for significance against several key dimensions.  These were then auto-aggregated into the scenario sketches seen below, following the theoretical work of Dator (2009) and subsequent empirical work on scenario archetypes based on a large body of comparative work by Schultz.

The resulting scenarios were:

  • Orwell, Redux
  • Soft Systems Reboot
  • Public Sector Overdrive

The image above gives a brief overview of each scenario, how they relate to each other, and how the system could transition from today into any one of these scenarios.  Click for more detail.

Scenario 1 – Orwell, Redux

This scenario is the result of diminished public resources and higher expectations from a demanding public. Less staff, fewer programs and reduced budgets produce more pressures for “operational efficiencies”, internal control, cost-cutting and doing more with less. This translates into an attempt to control risk by resisting change, doing as little as possible and working existing staff harder and longer whenever possible.

To mitigate the negative impression of such cost-cutting, there is an increase in spin, double-speak and propaganda about government services. Stronger rhetoric about ‘new partnerships and increased flexibility’  tends to mask a shedding of responsibility by the public sector, where ‘innovation & collaboration’ become buzz words for giving up responsibility and closing programs. Being forced to do “more with less”, especially in situations where your job may be under threat, turns out to produce a risk-averse, fearful public service culture that tries to reduce costs and minimize effort while delivering fewer and fewer services. This combination of decreased resources and increased spin actually produces less innovation, lower performance and increased stagnation.

Over time, the public and the markets begin to catch on. Like what happened in Greece, there will be an increasing willingness to take to the streets in protest; both as an act of political opposition and as a culture effort to reclaim the streets and make people feel like they have some say in their lives. If unaddressed, this situation could escalate into more aggressive examples, thereby creating jitters in the international credit and currency markets. This could possibly leading to downgrading, currency speculation or worse,depending on their interaction with other elements of the economy. The final result would be increased polarization, politicization of the public services and rising anger and frustration with ever diminishing public services.

Scenario 2 – Soft Systems Reboot

The government’s inability to meet citizen demands leads to a crisis of governance in the face of diminished resources and income. Rapid changes and complex, new problems produce a public sector dilemma that is unable to cope with its new reality. Metaphorically speaking, the ‘nerve systems’ of most public institutions are put under such  serious strain that, in some cases, collapse.

This creates recognition of a deep need to rethink our approach to public services. A growing group of stake holders demand give mandate for bold & creative leadership which sees transition and transformation as the way to overcome the fear and stagnation.

New organizational structures and experiments arise from within civil society that connect the dots between government, private sector and the citizenry. Such efforts reflect a more mature appreciation for public-private partnerships, which combine with new tools for facilitating social change and lead to a range of new approaches to public service.

Social media, the Web and networks become an integral part of this new leadership, leading to increased resilience and self-reliance in many communities.  Community-based, social entrepreneurship that rewards entrepreneurs, civil servants and local residents is held at a premium. Communities become stronger, more hopeful and better connected with each new idea and success.

Scenario 3 – Public Sector Overdrive

A genuine willingness to change leads to rapid adoption of new tools and approaches. The environment is moving too fast for government to keep up, but the same is true for the media and most businesses. There is little evidence that the general public really understands the complex issues they are faced with, but new technologies and ways of using them help people try to make sense of the profound changes they are experiencing. New government data sets are opened to the public, allowing all manner of public-spirited application development.

These efforts mark the start of a widespread effort to break down the centralized bureaucracies that attempt to manage public life. Social innovation, transparency and entrepreneurship take the lead and a new generation of public servants are expected to help lead this cultural shift. There is a tremendous amount of “below the radar” innovation which these tools empower and bring to the surface, leading to an ever increasing pace of innovation and investment.

Change come at a cost, however, as a whole generation of senior and mid-ranking civil servants are penalized in favor of their younger, more innovation-minded colleagues.  As a result, decision-making becomes ever more focused on short-term promotion cycles and near-term incentives, leading to increasingly reactive and opportunistic policies. The “progress trap” of short-term innovation chasing crowds out room for serious discussion of long-term consequence.

The burden of constant change without long-term vision begins to create burn-out and “change fatigue” in many government employees. Burn-out, short-termism and increasing volatility lead many to give up on the public sector, producing an ‘experience deficit’ with dangerous consequences. Over time, several slow, creeping crises begin to surface, revealing the limitations of short term “techno-fixes” and the mindset they create. A lack of understanding of complex situations and unintended consequences produces an increased demand for slow, considered dialogue, but unfortunately many with these skill sets have already left the public service.

Conclusion & Next Steps

As mentioned, these future sketches were auto-aggregated using narrative fragments contributed by over 265 participants in about a week. You can see the full list of quotes and anecdotes by clicking here.  A full analysis of the kinds of questions asked and process used can also be found here.

Although a certain degree of interpretation was required to make sense of the narrative clusters, the process was highly successful and surprisingly emotional.  The sketch scenarios demonstrate a remarkable internal consistency and produced several surprising, counter-intuitive outcomes.  The whole process also took less than two weeks and did not use any interviews, workshops of background research.

In the future, we hope to make the process more social and interactive.  It would be great if users could explore the anecdotes and stories of others contributing to the process, for example. I suspect that this would generate additional dialogue between the narrative fragments – possibly in the form of comments or response stories – that would add further narrative depth (although with added privacy concerns).

It would also be interesting to use these sketch scenarios as prompts to get participants to complete “day in the life” vignettes of how they would behave in each scenario in the future.  This would serve the dual purpose of further deepening the engagement of participants with the material and of producing content for the “implications” phase of a traditional scenario exercise.  This would add even more power to an already fascinating output, I suspect.

I’m happy to answer questions on any of this, so feel free to contact me or leave a comment.  Thanks in advance for your input.  I look forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts on these.

Finally, thank you to the many colleagues who have contributed directly and indirectly to this; most notably Dave Snowden, Wendy Schultz and Michael Flaxman (although thanks goes to Andrew Curry for several conversations as well).  If interested in learning more, please contact me directly or follow me on Twitter.

3 Trackbacks

  1. […] second system is called “SenseMaker Scenarios“.  This uses a customized version of Cognitive Edge’s SenseMaker Suite to aggregate […]

  2. By the crablands on May 2, 2011 at 10:37 pm

    The Future of Public Services…

    I really like this framework by urban planner Noah Raford for thinking about the future of public services. He asks three main questions: What is the future of public service provision under financial uncertainty? How will governments and cities adapt….

  3. By PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: April 26, 2011 on January 22, 2014 at 11:38 pm

    […] Raford describes an online scenario planning process using SenseMaker Suite to create the scenarios and auto-aggregation tools to analyze the narratives submitted by […]

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