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Part II Strategic Thinking – No Laughing Matter

Commentaries continue to offer various rants about the federal budget, debt ceiling, infrastructure decline and the growing feeling that Afghanistan is a lost cause. Imbalance of trade, job loss, a slow recovery, and a wary public are variables converging on decision makers as 2011 moves into the second half. Wiser and more cogent thinkers suggest that the path forward, while paved with cautious optimism, must have a foundation of consistent, careful consideration. Measure twice, cut once; tortoise and the hare…easy does it seems to be the ticket.

 Having vision conveys the ability to see the future through a prism forged from experience and analysis. What we want is not always in concert with available resources, existing policy or public support. Far too many continue to follow a path based on a narrow, short-term view, when other cultures learned centuries ago to take it slow and proceed carefully during a transformation. This takes us back to the value of an entirely new pattern of strategic thought.

 Strategic Planning

 For public agencies a Strategic Plan is strategic in nature because it addresses only the major issues and challenges the agency (and ultimately the entire state, county or community) is facing, along with goals, objectives, strategies and actions. It is issue driven and pertains to existing or predicted problems that are encountered by agencies responsible for dealing with them. Some issues will be shared among multiple agencies but application of strategies (how issues are addressed) will differ.

 Operations Plans are different because they define for each department and its component parts the various missions, operating (as opposed to strategic) goals, planned annual outputs and expected outcomes for general operations. Hard performance metrics are included for each output and clear outcomes are stated. This plan answers the question, ‘What are you doing and what is the community or taxpayer getting for the dollars spent?’ It is typically a summary document that describes the various operating elements of each department along with a description of what is being provided for an annual budget established to maintain current operations. Why is this so confusing?

 For many years our research and work with public agencies has shown that properly crafted strategic and operational plans naturally lend themselves to internal improvement planning. They foster a concise report that describes internal issues or circumstances that inhibit the agency from achieving its mission, then offers remedies with estimated costs if new money is required. Once identified, most internal issues are addressed with already appropriated and allocated funds. They are merely re-allocated to address specific high priority internal issues. This simple report generates significant management commitment to continuous improvement and demonstrates to executives that each agency is invested in reviewing and addressing problems that impact the quality or efficiency of internal operations. Its inherent value is that it formalizes internal improvement through a process that offers great latitude but still focuses resources on agency development.

 The above reports are different than annual reports, which summarize the major elements of Strategic, Operations, and Improvement plans. These have many formats; some are quite extensive, others are summaries. But all provide the chief executive, board, council, commission, and public with an overview of what each agency is facing, its general operations, how it is improving, and what it is accomplishing for the funds expended.

 I can hear what some readers are thinking – ‘That is too much! We don’t have time for all those plans and reports!’ Here’s the interesting thing. After working with many state agencies, cities and counties over the years, most already have a variety of required plans and reports. Rarely, however, do I find a comprehensive executive planning approach that even partially connects key planning efforts to one central process. Done well, it is much faster and efficient, generates less heartburn and provides better overall reporting. The genesis of the many forces contributing to the need for evolved planning systems matters little. What does matter is that the magnitude of restricted funds and growing needs now confronting state and local government demand greater commitment to comprehensive executive planning and resource allocation.

 Unfortunately, of the many strategic plans we review every year, most are hybrids containing various characteristics of both operations and strategic plans with some aspects of annual reporting tossed in. Our research has shown that far too few public agencies take time to develop and maintain either strategic or operations plans. Quite often, there are no formal (or even informal) internal plans describing the activities of various departments, the programs and activities for which each is accountable, or the basic outcomes each is expected to produce.

 It has become critical that progressive cities and counties require departments to have at least rudimentary operating plans that explain what services are offered to whom, what outputs are delivered, and how outcomes are measured. Municipal governments must tie performance measures to budget allocation and create a “triage” system based on what services are most essential to sustain an economically vibrant, safe, and harmonious community. Unfortunately, the annual budget appropriation and allocation process is too often a battle among departments that pitches director against director and occasionally elected officials against each other as they collectively grapple with service priorities.

 Strategic thinking requires process; it requires a sensible approach that fits state and local government. More importantly, it requires a vision founded on good data, a reverence for community legacy, and the willingness to proceed at a measured, consistent pace. There are communities that are doing well during this challenging time. What are their attributes? Why are they solvent, harmonious and economically sound? Is there a pattern and does it offer a strategic approach?

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).

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One Response

  1. Sounds like some wise advice, Dr. Luthy.

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