Strategic Planning: Are Agencies Set Up to Fail?

Missions are in jeopardy unless leaders look beyond the Results Act's five-year horizon.

Most federal leaders understandably focus on the important work of meeting public needs in the here and now. To the extent they consider the future, few look beyond the five-year Government Performance and Results Act time-horizon.

In focusing on today’s needs, it is easy to lose sight of the longer term. As baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra once said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” Given our nation’s long-term fiscal challenges, agencies in 10 to 15 years will be lucky if their budgets are flat, if not declining. The baby boomers will have retired in mass—decreasing institutional knowledge and increasing human service agencies’ workloads. New technologies will have to be adopted quicker. And the public will expect services to be delivered in new and innovative ways. These trends are having some impact today, but they will be a much bigger force a decade from now.

By focusing so much on immediate demands, the federal government is woefully unprepared for the future. It’s time to strike a more appropriate balance. While current operations must remain a priority, agencies must institutionalize long-term planning to make sure issues critical to future mission performance are addressed.

It is time to give priority to disciplined long-range strategic visioning and planning at each agency. Five-year GPRA plans are not enough. We need to actively steer the future into the present by focusing on a period of at least a decade, if not two.

There are important precedents agencies can build on. The nation’s defense and intelligence agencies, for example, have been doing high-quality long-range strategic planning for decades.  A few civilian agencies—including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Veterans Affairs Department—also have begun to embrace the importance of systematic long-range planning. The National Academy of Public Administration learned about these efforts when assisting the Social Security Administration in developing a long-range vision and high-level strategic plan (the Academy’s panel report, issued in July, is available at www.napawash.org).

Individual agencies must beef up long-term planning, but an integrated, governmentwide effort also is necessary to have the greatest impact. A new long-range strategic vision and planning team that can provide expert assistance in planning and ensure coordination across agencies should be established in the Executive Office of the President. Exactly what this Executive Office capacity might look like and how it might operate will require careful consideration and learning by doing.

Congress also has a critical role in fostering an environment in which federal agencies can prepare for the future. It can require agency leaders—in cooperation with stakeholders—to identify probable futures, develop a vision and produce a road map for transformation. Such actions will instill confidence that serious thinking about the future is under way while enhancing discussions with congressional leaders over current budget and policy issues.  

The world is changing rapidly and profoundly, threatening the federal government’s ability to perform important public missions. It is critical that agencies undertake the long-range planning needed to identify and implement often complex changes in time to meet future demands. But preparing for the future cannot be left to the isolated efforts of individual agencies. The White House must take actions to encourage and support long-range planning across government.

Dan Blair is president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration.

(Image via Thinglass/Shutterstock.com)

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