Only Long-Term Planning Can Counter Short-Term Thinking

Agency plans tend to be designed around the four-year election cycle, but the most important challenges require a much longer time horizon.

In 1996, Congress required the Defense Department to begin conducting quadrennial defense reviews centered on plausible future national security scenarios and to assess the effectiveness of different approaches for addressing those scenarios. These reviews, which project 15 to 20 years into the future, are conducted every four years to inform Defense strategic efforts.  

In a new report for the IBM Center, Dr. Jordan Tama, at American University, assesses the use of quadrennial reviews by Defense and three other federal departments. He observes: “the QDR is generally viewed more favorably by policymakers outside of DOD than by defense officials inside the department.” In fact, external policymakers see the QDR as an “excellent model of strategic planning,” and this led to the creation of similar efforts in the departments of Homeland Security, State, and Energy.

Tama writes: “The quadrennial reviews are extremely structured and intensive processes that span 10 to 18 months in length. They are highly inclusive of departmental staff, and some departments include other agencies, states, localities, and private sector stakeholders.”  He found that these reviews are done differently in each of the four departments. Some involve only internal staffs; others engage the public; while others actively engage a range of agencies as well as experts in selected fields. However, in every case, the reviews have produced public reports that set out a vision for where the department is headed in coming years.

Interestingly, Tama found: “the departments conducting these major quadrennial reviews have not used the reviews directly as their mechanisms for producing strategic plans. Instead, separate efforts have been required to translate the ideas in quadrennial review reports into more actionable operational guidance.” He says that quadrennial reviews can serve as a part of agencies’ required four-year strategic planning efforts.

Tama’s research finds that these reviews are both loved and hated. One Defense official he interviewed quipped: “If God really hates you, you may end up working on a Quadrennial Defense Review.” Another noted: “QDRs are ugly exercises. Everyone is defending turf. But they are the best, and perhaps only, opportunity for the secretary to put a major imprint on the defense program.”

Defense QDRs Have Mix Reviews

To date, the Defense Department has conducted five quadrennial reviews. In 2014, Congress revised the name of the QDR to the “Defense Strategy Review” and mandated a greater focus on assessing and mitigating risks.

Looking back over the past 20 years at the value of the reviews, there are mixed assessments of the highly structured process. Detractors say that the highly inclusive approach results in the lowest common denominators for positions taken in the final report, and “that it is very difficult to deviate sharply from the status quo.” But Tama also found: “The QDR has provided a mechanism for incorporating long-range analysis into strategic decision making, advancing the priorities of department leaders, socializing ideas throughout the department, and developing new initiatives.”

For example, Tama writes: “the 2006 QDR resulted in decisions to increase the size of U S special operations forces and grow the number of US submarines. The 2010 QDR drove decisions to create new military units designed to disable weapons of mass destruction in hostile environments and assist US governors with responses to WMD threats. In the latter set of cases, mid-level DOD officials used the review process to gain the support of more senior DOD officials for the new initiatives, which had been resisted by powerful parts of the bureaucracy.”

Experiences in Other Departments  

The three other departments using quadrennial reviews found that the reviews made important differences in their long-term strategies:

  • “The Department of Homeland Security’s 2010 review helped define mission areas and advanced cross-DHS integration.
  • “At the Department of State, the 2015 review led to institutional reforms designed that made the department more data-driven in its operations and strategy.
  • “And the Department of Energy review—which was led out of the White House, not the agency—provided a vehicle to orchestrate a common public-private sector approach to investments in energy infrastructure.”

Lessons for Other Agencies

The GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 re-set the timelines for when agencies are to prepare and submit their four-year strategic plans to Congress. In the original law, agencies could develop strategic plans for periods of three to five years, at their discretion. In the Modernization Act, all agencies must submit their final plans to Congress along with the president’s budget one year after the beginning of each four-year term of office.

So, in the coming cycle, draft agency strategic plans are due to the Office of Management and Budget by June 2017, with final plans to be submitted to Congress in February 2018. Tama notes: “For the first time, the next president will benefit from legislation that promotes multi-year planning to shape the direction of federal agencies at the onset of a new administration.”

Therefore, for departments that are developing strategic plans, but do not conduct a quadrennial review, Tama offers several insights for top departmental leaders and agency strategic planners:

  • Ensure attention to assessing their agency’s strategic environment and long-range challenges. While it may not require an exercise as elaborate as a quadrennial review, agencies can learn techniques, and things to avoid, from those agencies conducting quadrennial reviews.
  • Develop and integrate analytical capacity. The Defense Department has a long tradition of having a strong capacity to conduct sophistical technical analyses.
  • Consult extensively with stakeholders. The structure of the quadrennial review provides a mechanism for extensive stakeholder involvement. Incorporating insights and perspectives from both internal and external stakeholders helps create buy-in and alignment that are essential for implementation and resource allocations.

Governmentwide Recommendations  

Tama writes: “Other studies have found that structured planning tends to improve government performance.” Based on these studies and his research, he offers three recommendations to the White House and Congress:

1. Harmonize quadrennial review and strategic plan requirements. 
The requirements for the four existing quadrennial reviews are not directly linked to the GPRA Modernization Act requirements that require the development of four-year agency strategic plans. Ideally, the long view of the quadrennial reviews would be the basis for building agency strategic plans, but the timing of their development cycles are not aligned.

Tama suggests that “In cases where quadrennial reviews are authorized by law [Defense and Homeland Security], the administration should ask Congress to revise the legislative requirements for the reviews so those requirements include the development of the agency strategic plans mandated by the GPRA Modernization Act.” In the two agencies where their quadrennial reviews are not statutory (State and Energy), he says OMB should at least encourage alignment.

2. Conduct more planning on crosscutting issues.
 The Quadrennial Energy Review breaks the mold of organizing strategic reviews around the traditional agency structures and focuses on energy as a system. Although the Department of Energy performs most of the staff work, the review is directed by a White House-led interagency task force.

Tama notes that the federal government’s approach to strategic planning remains too stove-piped, especially given that many policy challenges are increasingly cross-cutting – such as cybersecurity, climate change, and food safety.  He recommends that “The White House and Congress should supplement agency quadrennial planning with the establishment of more robust interagency planning processes in specific issue areas that span numerous agencies.”

3. Support the development of more long-range analytic capacity across the government.
 Tama notes: “Many government agencies have made considerable strides in developing the capacity to conduct risk analyses and collect and analyze data. But the capacities of agencies to perform long-range and other sophisticated forms of analysis vary widely, and these capacities remain insufficient across much of the government.” Like the National Academy of Public Administration, he recommends the support of “new offices and positions throughout the government dedicated to conducting long-range analysis, and creating a position or unit based in the White House with responsibility for promoting the development and coordination of government-wide foresight activities.”