Future Test Your Policy and Program: An Anticipatory Approach
Future test involves techniques that provide a structured approach for examining policy, program and proposals from the perspective of its ability to succeed based on an external environmental perspective. For purposes of brevity, the article will use the word program to mean program, policy or legislation. The article is based on thirty years experience using the techniques discussed in this article to help Federal governments in several countries in the world including Canada, several provincial governments and municipal governments to develop, implement and then monitor new programs. Considerable research is done today to create these programs: industry consultation is frequently done; econometric modeling and a arrange of other techniques. Future test is an additional technique (actually techniques) that recognize that for the program to succeed from a future test perspective two questions need to be addressed:
- Will the program be used as intended? For the program to succeed, it must be used by the people/groups that it targets in the way it was envisioned. For a small business investment program that I was involved with, venture capital firms would have to use the credit and small businesses would have to accept funding from venture capital firms. In the case of a nanotechnology program that I helped to advise, the companies in that industry are the ones who will have to apply for and use the funds for and hopefully do the research envisioned by the program. Governments create programs but they can’t control who decides to use it and how they use it. So future test asks the question, when the program is launched will the people intended to use it, use it and will they use it in the way it was intended.
- When the program is actioned will the desired outcome make sense any more? It takes time to create and implement a program. Let’s call this the program temporal period. For the small business venture capital investment program, it took roughly one year to get the program running and another year for the investment firms to start applying for it. In the nanotechnology program it was two years to get it past the legislature but it would be another five years before the R&D investment would result in the commercialization activities envisioned. Future test asks the question for example in the case of the nanotechnology program, will the market in seven years still want the products envisioned by the program? Will other countries/companies have leapfrogged the intended products. Programs are normally developed in the context of the problem today that needs to be fixed, future test in this sense looks at whether the “fix” will make sense when the results of the program occur.
Examples of the future test approach
Will the program be used by the targets in the way envisioned? For the small business venture capital credit to work, venture capital firms need to value the credit as being sufficient to cause them to make investments in small businesses. As well, for the program to work small businesses must accept this venture capital investment. Competitive intelligence was used to develop profiles on selected investment capital firms and small businesses to future test whether they would act in the way required. Interviews were also done with each of these groups as well. The conclusion based on using competitive intelligence and market research techniques was that venture capital firms welcomed the credits but small businesses did not welcome venture capital which many referred to as “vulture capital”. The program would not work. In another case a loan guarantee program to assist alternative energy firms failed because although the companies would use it, the banks in that country did not want to provide loans to firms in this industry. Profiling and market research approaches were used in this case as well.
When the program is actioned will the desired outcome make sense any more? In the case of the incentive for investing in small business, results would be seen quickly (two years). But the nanotechnology program (and telecommunications legislation that used this approach) would require many years to see the impact of the program. It takes a lot of time for a company to develop and then take to market a nanotechnology product. Now add in the amount of time to develop the legislation, get it through Parliament and depending on the country the Senate and then the time to fully implement it and you have between one year and 20+ years between the idea and the implementation. David Wolfe a noted economist from University of Toronto said that impact of decisions being made by government today on Autonomous Vehicles will impact what we see in AV’s in thirty years. Key in all this is that while statistical databases, market research, industry consultation and the like are very important in developing programs, policies and legislation, these are typically routed either in the past (statistics) or today. This means that as part of the future test approach the question is asked what the environment will look like next year (tax policy) or in 20 years (nanotechnology) and how will the proposed program fit then? Will what is proposed today lead to the appropriate outcome when the intended results of the program are finally realized. Techniques such as horizon scanning, scenarios, road maps are examples of techniques used for this purpose. For a program designed to encourage a specific type of cleantech development we had to look at what other countries were doing in this industry and what they were developing. The question being is what we are supporting going to lead to the countries companies being in front of the industry or trailing what is already being developed.
Sometimes future test includes used a futures literacy approach to help envision distant futures and distant desired, futures. Predicting 10 to 20 years is not possible but, in a program, I did with a small town they envisioned what they would like to look like in 10 years (futures literacy). We then looked at what was required to realize that future (timelining approach) which led to the identification of decisions that needed to be made now and actioned so that the future vision could be realized. Market insight was used to identify what needed to be done to successfully action the decisions (profiling, market assessment and other techniques). In this example town leadership realized that one of the major factors limiting attraction of business to the town was the poor state of the hospital. This led to using competitive intelligence/market insight, to learn about the hospital approval process and then profile those that would be responsible for making the decision. The result of actioning what future test identified was that the leadership applied to the province for the new hospital and it was successful. The hospital proposal was approved and implemented. Along with other actions taken by the group the actual future ten years later was very close to the one desired.
Future test past implementation
Predicting how people will react to programs and trying to determine what future environment will look like is fraught with much uncertainty. Over time, things change and that can affect the likelihood of program success.
The idea of future test past implementation is to continually monitoring for signs that:
- The program is being used or will be used as intended
- That the desired outcome of the program still makes sense
There is a technique in competitive intelligence called timelining, foresight has a similar technique called back-casting. The essence of both is that long before the actual event occurs, there will be signs that you can follow that will let you know if the event will happen. While we tend to focus on the endpoint, for example that the appropriate nanotechnology products are being commercialized, we know that several activities have to occur before that, for example, doing the research, before that hiring the appropriate research staff, before that applying for the funds, before that exploration activities. These are just a few of the activities that you will find on a timeline. Under a timeline/back casting future test approach is do the “signs” (information) that we can pick up on for each step of the timeline suggest that the eventual outcome (the desired nanotechnology products) will be what was intended. The earlier you can figure this out the quicker corrective action can be taken. Looked a slightly different way future test at this stage asks the question are the decisions that the intended targets of the program making suggest that the program outcomes will be realized. If not, then the program can be altered at an early point.
For the nanotechnology program we sat down with both companies in the industry and government and drew out the timeline. The first step in the timeline (post program announcement) would be companies asking questions about the program to government officers. The second step was they then applying to the program. Other sequencing steps were identified including those related to R&D activities. Now business analytics is brought in to future test the program.
To address the first step in the timeline, the recommendation for future test was to gather from government officers who answer companies’ questions about programs a list of all questions and discussions they had with companies about the program. The questions about the nanotechnology program were gathered and analyzed. Content analysis and word maps would show in a sense what they planned to use the program for (or hoped that the program would do). This would enable projecting how the companies would likely use the program, the type of R&D they were thinking of doing. The applications were also analyzed on an ongoing basis. This would let the department know at a very early stage if the eventual products envisioned by the program were going to be developed and then whether commercialization would happen. This type of future test was done on an ongoing basis and enabled the Department to modify both the program and the program information material to ensure that program objectives could be realized.
The above addresses the question of is the program going to be used as intended and could be done on a frequent basis. As for the question of does the outcome of the program still make sense. Competitive intelligence, foresight and futures literacy approaches would be used. If the products are expected to be in the future, what does that future now look like. One year into the program a new roadmap would be put together. Further officers would ve asked when they were at trade shows and conferences to look for information on emerging innovations in the nanotechnology industry that would challenge the ability of the program to reach its targets. Looking at decisions being made that can affect the market for the intended nanotechnology will enable the department to determine whether the future market will still support the investment. Again, information gathered enables the Department to further modify the program, its delivery and how it was being communicated to companies.
This future test approach has been applied by me both directly through consulting activities and indirectly by government officers taking my program. It has been used to develop Telecommunications policy, identify agrifood markets, develop industrial policy, create investment tax credit, loan guarantee programs and grant programs for many different industries and more. The future test approach has been used in several countries include Canada at the Federal provincial and municipal levels.
A future test approach using techniques from competitive intelligence, market insight, foresight, futures literacy, and marketing is not intended to replace how programs (including policies and legislation) are developed but does provide an additional approach to help better develop and target programs, policies and legislation.