Environmental scans actively involve the public in the agencys planning and transformation processes. The public pays the taxes that support the agencys operation. It is, in fact, their agency. Involving the public is no more optional than would be involving the “owners” in the strategic planning for any business. It would make little sense to do otherwise, although, for public agencies, excluding the public from strategic planning processes is much more common than one might imagine.
The agency has been authorized to do its work on behalf of the public. It only makes sense that the public, defined in the broadest sense, must be involved in the planning process. To do otherwise would be extraordinarily shortsighted and potentially counterproductive, especially when the agency depends on the public for continuing authorization and financial support.
The agency must cast its net wide and far to invite the public to participate in the planning process and to provide the essential data about what they want to be included in the agencys strategic plan. What is normally defined as the “usual cast of characters,” e.g., elected officials, service providers, law enforcement representatives, members of the faith community, the media, etc. are of course invited. Additionally, though, parents, foster parents, children and youth, and other interested members of the public should also actively take part in this phase of the strategic planning process. The key question is, “Who else could we have invited?” Invite them.
Environmental scanning participants in each scanning session (Depending on the size of the community, more than one session may be necessary.) are, through a facilitated process, asked to respond one-question-at-a-time to a series of three structured questions:
1. What are your hopes for children, families, and your community ten years from now?
The group, which may consist of more than one hundred people, is broken into sub-groups of six to eight individuals who normally do not work together. Sub-group members are asked to first discuss the above question and reach consensus in their small groups about what their response will be for that question. The response captures what they, as a group, want and value.
Each sub-group is next asked to record its response on a large sheet of paper that can be displayed so the full group can see each others responses. If reasonable within the available time and in the facility, each sub-group should also verbally report their response to the full group. If not, the facilitator should report to the full group, being sure to include the response of every sub-group. Through this process, every participant has the opportunity to contribute data.
While the reports are being given to the full group, either the primary facilitator or a qualified assistant begins to identify and record what organizations and individuals, formal and informal, need to be involved to support the attainment of the wants and values being reported. The agency, courts, mental health, substance abuse treatment, law enforcement, child care, churches, parks and recreation, etc. are a few of the many which will be listed. The Childrens Safety Net (See the Introduction) exists in every community and realizing the wants and values of the full group will require the coordinated efforts of all of its members.
Every member of the scanning group has the opportunity to contribute to creating the vision. This is the information that will be used by the “guiding group” (discussed later) in its development of a community vision for children, families, and the community. Once developed, this vision will be shared with the community, including the participants in the environmental scanning process.
2. What is the unique contribution that the child protection agency can make to the attainment of this vision?
The facilitator has recorded a large number of individuals and organizations within the Childrens Safety Net that must contribute to realizing the wants and values identified by the full group. This question is designed to “ratchet down” the role of the agency in attaining the vision. The agency cannot do everything but it does have an important contribution to make. What should that contribution be?
Again, the full group divides into sub-groups of six to eight participants, discusses the question, and reports out to the full group. The reports represent the information that will be used by the guiding group when developing the agencys mission statement during its planning process.
3. What are the unique opportunities and barriers facing children and families?
The small group process is repeated and reports are made to the full group. This information will be considered when the guiding group determines the priorities that the strategic plan will address.
There are several important, direct outcomes from the environmental scanning process. First, the public has been invited to contribute to the development of the agencys strategic plan and the planning process has been explained to them. Next, if the media chose to attend the session, it may report on the activity and on the data contributed through the environmental scanning process. If so, many people who did not attend the session will be made aware of the planning initiative. Additionally, the agency has been provided specific information about what the public wants and values.
Further, there is a powerful and oftentimes unintended consequence of the environmental scanning process, i.e., education. Far too often, there are misconceptions and just plain bad information that abound about agency practices. These beliefs can be identified, discussed, and clarified, usually in the sub-group sessions. Community support for the agency is generally higher after the environmental scanning process. However, that increased support will be withdrawn quickly if the agency fails to take definitive action to either better explain current practices or to modify agency practices to better conform to public expectations.