Unlocking the Power of Strategic Planning, and Plans, for Public Managers (Part 1)

This is the first in a series of posts about the multi-faceted ways a strategic planning process and the resulting plan can support managers and leaders.

Strategic plans are powerful. The words alone are enough to elicit eye rolls from most seasoned public servants.

Jokes aside, many complaints about strategic planning are well-founded. A bad strategic planning process can distract from daily work without adding long-term benefits to that work. It can cause more intramural tension than it offers clarity on how and where to build collaboration. And at worst it seemingly serves only to produce a document that sits on the shelf for 3-5 years collecting dust until the next planning cycle starts, without directing any action in the intervening time.

A good process and the resulting plan, though, can be catalysts for change and growth. They are able to bring individual components together in support of a less-fragmented whole. Today, we’ll explore how they can serve as tools in a good public manager’s toolkit to help drive employee engagement — something we should all be looking to do in today’s labor market.

Strategic Planning: How We Eat The Whale

Most strategic plans are used as tools to help put context and action to an organization’s mission and vision. Though every city, county, and state agency may have its own unique mission and vision statement, they all boil down to the same sentiment: we’re here to increase public value. Unfortunately, this is where we start to lose folks — because “public value” is rarely defined and also highly amorphous, it means everything to everyone and nothing to anyone. For sake of argument, public value is defined as the degree of positive impact created for the public or society as a whole.

How do we put action to a mission as wide ranging as that? The same way we eat a whale. One bite at a time.

A good strategic planning process, in a nutshell, looks like this: Goals are established as a means of making mission and vision more tangible. Strategies are then articulated as a way to help individuals make sense of how they might accomplish those goals. Ultimately, objectives are drawn up as measurable means by which the organization will achieve strategies.

Connecting People to Mission Through Strategy

Because organizations are made up of people, it’s this last level in our hierarchy that helps connect the individual to the mission.

Perhaps you run an IT service desk and your objectives include closing support tickets within a certain service level agreement (SLA) with customer agencies. An IT support specialist may not understand how closing tickets helps drive public value. So, as their manager or organization leader you put ticket closure into context of the enablement of your customer agency’s public programs.

Those public programs may support goals intending to alleviate poverty, spur economic development, or ensure public safety. These goals are supported by strategies to reduce crime, incentivize the development of affordable housing, or provide job training. Without technology available, accessible, and functioning properly, program staff are unable to engage in their work directly providing these services through their own measurable activities. Objectives aren’t accomplished, the strategies they feed fail, goals go unreached and the mission remains unmet.

The IT support specialist now understands how their ticket closure objective helps support the strategy to enable customer agencies, and that the strategy of enabling other programming helps support a goal of providing a government well-run.

By leveraging the strategic plan, the manager is able to clearly articulate purpose and help her team understand how their seemingly simple actions and routine results contribute to something as audacious as increasing public value. And, when employees understand how they’re connected to the mission they have greater purpose, engagement, and productivity — which further increases public value.

A Lesson in Latent Power

Strategic plans are indeed powerful. And that power extends beyond punchlines — though much of it exists in latency — meaning it may not always be obvious. The trick to latent power is that you only benefit from it when you use it (a cup is just a paperweight until you pour liquid into it). Most managers may not reach for their strategic plan when an employee asks why they need to perform a particular task, or why their work matters. But they’d be well served to, as it would take the plan out of the realm of paperweight and into a tool to help themselves, their team, and their organization deliver on the mission to increase public value.

Micah Intermill is Founder + Principal at GovStrategist LLC, a consulting firm providing strategic management, public finance and executive coaching services to local governments and state agencies. With nearly two decades of experience in and around the public sector, Micah was previously Director of Solutions Engineering at OpenGov, Budget Director for the City of Minneapolis, and Chief Financial Officer for the State of Minnesota’s Department of Administration. Micah holds a Master’s in Public Policy from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Nebraska.

Image by Pixabay via Pexels.com

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