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Strategic Thinking – No Laughing Matter

At a time when so many variables are converging on public agencies, has the ability to think strategically become less consequential? Top managers, executives and elected officials still seem convinced that planning has merit, and certainly, many professionals are exceptional planners. But is seems that the most common theme among employees is “Why do we have to do this?  It is a waste of time.”

As evidenced in previous discussions about possible and probable futures, strategic thinking and planning have become the most critical elements of public management. Even though we have witnessed the advent of multiple planning activities over the past three decades, it is clear that overall strategic thought has become a key success factor that must be built into the fabric of every organization. In terms of professional development, the ability to think and plan strategically is one of the principal skills every responsible manager should possess and integrate into every work team, no matter how large or small. As often noted in this Blog, it is important to understand that strategic planning is a process and not a program.  While the central elements of a plan can be taught, it is the process of collaboratively planning and implementing that pays the greatest dividends.

The Concept of Executive Planning

It dawned on me one day that, from the early 1970s through the first decade of this new millennium – over the 39 years I have worked in and for state and local government, I have never seen a fully integrated executive planning system – especially one formulated for government. Having done planning for Fortune 500 companies and many smaller firms with revenues ranging from $1 million to over $3 billion, as well as for state and local government, I have become familiar with many planning approaches – often finding them merely retreads of previous processes. I would imagine that many readers have enjoyed using and incorporating various elements of Systems Theory, Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award criteria,  Balanced Scorecard, Six Sigma, Total Quality Management, Management by Objective, ISO 9000, its applications and updates (quality standards from the International Organization for Standardization in Geneva), and other continuous improvement approaches.

 Many senior managers have experimented with the older-style SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats), as well as PEST reviews (Political, Economic, Social, and Technological), and STEER analysis (Socio-cultural, Technological, Economic, Ecological, and Regulatory). All have merit if applied properly, but do they provide a complete executive planning system for government? Not really. While various components have value, when used alone they don’t connect all the dots.

 Many state and local agencies have annual plans (some strategic, some not), operations plans, and annual budgets; communities are responsible for developing multi-year comprehensive plans; utilities are required to have solid waste, water and wastewater system plans; and public safety has annual plans that detail disaster response, crime prevention and homeland security measures. Even with this volume of planning activity I have only occasionally seen a local government that has an aligned planning system with guidelines, internal training, linkages, templates, shared measurement, and a summarized annual reporting process.

 In my view, the absence of comprehensive planning systems is one of the multiple factors that inhibit the progress, adaptability and stability of state and local government. This is especially critical now in an era of declining revenues, greater public scrutiny and the importance of transforming to leaner, more accountable government.

 It seems apparent that for practical reasons and to promote efficiency it is essential to pursue more integrated planning at the executive level of state and local government. That typically means involvement by all executive department directors as well as by commissioners, city managers and mayors who serve as chief executive officers. Generally, elected officials receive plans but are not instrumental in their development. To properly plan, develop, and operate essential community services, local governments need an overall executive planning process that includes strategic planning, operations planning, organization improvement planning, and financial planning.

 Even though public planning has evolved considerably over the past decade, those efforts will be consistently driven and defined by four factors:

1. The importance of understanding current and emerging issues and preparing for future challenges that have high probability of significant community impact.

2. Greater attention dedicated to accountability through efforts that assess program value and contribution to the community, and the explicit requirement that every program show measured performance, progress toward planned outcomes and value for resources expended.

3. Greater clarity about agency and program missions (why they exist), long-term goals (expected outcomes), measureable annual objectives, tangible performance indicators and scheduled strategies/ actions that will be undertaken to achieve goals and objectives.

4. Detailed reports that describe agency and program efforts toward continuous internal improvement. Regardless of funding levels, the question must be posed, How is this agency improving its efficiency, effectiveness, productivity, and quality while keeping costs as low as possible? 

The basic question is, ‘What does Executive Planning for state and local government entail?’ I recommend that every governor, mayor, city manager, municipal board, county commission, etc. establish a series of plans and reports that address specific aspects of public management. Four annual documents should be required from all agencies:

  • Strategic Plan
  • Operations Plan or Summary
  • Internal Improvement Plan
  • Annual Report

My next Blog will explain each of these documents and why, when developed as one integrated system, they will build more efficiency, productivity, quality and performance into public agencies. Executive planning is a cornerstone of good public management and is clearly described in my new book, Planning the Future, released in October 2010.

 With almost four decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). His new book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders, was released in October 2010. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).