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Environmental Scanning: A Public Service Dimension of Elections

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
January 5, 2020 

Public administration focuses upon meeting the needs and expectations of the community. This can be challenging, given the variety of needs and expectations within a diverse community. One aspect of the challenge in identifying current and future service priorities is our relationship with the public, which might partially be remedied through environmental scanning.

While everyone in public administration works for the community, most do not do so directly. They interact with the public, but they work for an appointed or elected leadership, and it is those appointed or elected leaders who interact with the community to set operational goals and priorities. This separation creates a buffer from undue political pressure, but it may have a dampening effect on the ability to understand community expectations. However, during the election process, we might often have some sense of the wishes of all within the community and how they wish them prioritized. Environmental scanning provides a means to anticipate needs, which will better prepare us to meet them.

One of the greatest maritime disasters was the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912. A key factor in the sinking was the iceberg not being spotted until 11:39 pm, just one minute before the collision. The Titanic had professional lookouts, but they had not been properly equipped with binoculars that evening. A surviving lookout later testified that had he had binoculars, he would have seen the iceberg earlier, and the disaster might have been averted. This illustrates the value of environmental scanning.

Environmental scanning involves looking at your internal and external environments, identifying anything anomalous. Imagine being a lookout on an oceangoing vessel. Looking through your binoculars, you scan the horizon in all directions unceasingly. An iceberg might first appear as a small “bump” far away. At that distance, it is enough to note it, planning to return periodically to make a closer examination. Doing so, you shall be better prepared to make plans to avoid or minimize any risk. You will get through safely and be able to warn others of the dangers.

 In a public sector setting, this might take the form of reviewing political and policy debates in legislative bodies. It might take the form of scanning news media such as television, news websites, trade journals and newspapers, looking for any issue which might, now or in the future, affect your agency. Reviewing these materials might provide you with insights into catalyst events, but you must still reflect upon them. This might take the form of group brainstorming to consider how an event might affect the community, and how this might affect demands for service. Identifying and reflecting upon these concerns facilitates your agency’s ability to meet these challenges proactively.

The public sector has not always done this well. In 2008, when the housing bubble burst, there was extensive information suggesting this would greatly affect local and state governments, as well as individuals. Despite this, many public agencies seemed unprepared for calls to reduce operating costs or deal with employees challenged economically or emotionally by the event. Many agencies then felt incredibly pressured to differentiate between core and peripheral services rapidly, reducing service delivery and workforce in a manner protecting those services most valued by the community. Due to a lack of foresight, this was not always achieved effectively.

There are differing approaches to environmental scanning. One popular approach is the SWOT Analysis, where S represents “strength,” W represents “weakness,” O represents “opportunity,” and T represents “threat.” This model represents an internal scan in relation to a specific catalyst. Through brainstorming, a group assesses the agency’s potential strengths and weaknesses relative to a specific event, letting them leverage strengths to overcome weakness. The group also considers the potential opportunities and threats which might be experienced based on how the agency responds, providing insight to the agency’s prioritization of this challenge.

Another popular approach is the PEST Model which is an external scan. In the PEST Model, the P represents the “political environment,” the E represents the “economic environment,” the S represents the “social environment,” and the T represents the “technological environment.” With this model, for each identified catalyst, the group considers the political, economic, social, and technological pressures on the agency to act or not, based upon community perspectives on this issue.

Regardless of the model used to identify and assess future challenges facing a public agency, the value of environmental scanning cannot be over emphasized. Those in public administration should not ignore elections—they provide a wealth of information for use in environmental scanning. The earlier we see the challenge, the more time available to assess the potential impact on the community, the more time available to prepare a proactive response, and the more likely we will be able to successfully achieve our mission of supporting a higher quality of life for the communities we serve.

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, MS(HRM), MS(I/O Psych.) is an independent scholar and HRM Consultant. He served in local government for over thirty years and as full-time faculty in public administration-related programs for more than ten. He is the President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of the American Society for Public Administration. He may be reached at [email protected]

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