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What Government’s Broken Strategic Planning Needs: Evidence

Instead of trying to create the perfect strategic plan, agencies should aim to get better at learning what works.

Why do so many strategic plans by government agencies and jurisdictions fail, ending up on the shelf as expensive paperweights?

One reason is that, too often, they’re developed by a narrow group—usually a strategic planning team working with leadership. The plans hardly ever achieve broader buy-in from staff and other stakeholders, nor do they reflect the input of staff with implementation expertise.

A second, less obvious reason that strategic plans often fall flat is the theory (one might say hubris) underlying them: that if we pick the right set of goals, strategies and initiatives and then implement them well, we will achieve the results we want. It’s a prescriptive approach that assumes we have all the answers, including knowledge about the complex causal relationships involved.

The reality, of course, is that we are often guessing about what affects what. That’s not because of incompetence, but rather because the work that government does is complicated. From fighting poverty to addressing the opioid crisis to tackling climate change, if the answers were easy we’d have solved these challenges already.  

A similar point was made 30 years ago by Bob Behn, now at the Harvard Kennedy School, in his seminal article, “Management by Groping Along.” Public managers, Behn noted, “need to have a clear sense of mission for their agency. But they will never know precisely how to realize these purposes.” Rather than aiming to create the perfect plan, Behn argued, public managers “must experiment with various initiatives, trying to determine what works and what does not.”

Does trying to determine what works sound familiar? It’s a central focus of the evidence-based policy movement. Yet strategic planning and evidence efforts rarely intersect. Experts on these topics generally sit in separate offices within agencies and view their work as largely unrelated. Not surprisingly, three decades after Behn’s article, most agencies and jurisdictions are still trying to create the perfect strategic plan rather than aiming to get better at learning what works.

What we need is the next generation of strategic planning, integrating the traditional approach to it with evidence-based decision making. The focus should be on strengthening an organizational culture of learning and continuous improvement. The goal should be a culture that builds evidence about what’s working and what’s not, and then uses that evidence, with built-in feedback loops, to refine initiatives and strategies over time. To achieve that, agencies and jurisdictions should do five things:

  1. Clearly define what success looks like for each goal, using qualitative or quantitative measures—or both if possible. If you want to build a culture of continuous improvement, you need to be clear about what kind of improvement you’re aiming for.
  1. Create learning agendas for each main goal or strategy. Learning agendas identify key research and operational questions that need to be answered in order to improve results. A question could be about which version of a program works best, or it could be about whether a program or policy works as well for rural as for urban areas. Learning agendas help focus evidence efforts—including program evaluation, data analytics and rapid experimentation—on priority questions.
  1. Develop clear logic models for each initiative. Logic models tie inputs and activities to outputs and outcomes. They don’t need to be complicated. The goal is to clarify assumptions about what affects what and to specify the expected results. They’re useful for implementation planning as well as to inform how results will be evaluated.
  1. Implement evaluation strategies for each initiative, formalizing the feedback loop. Without this step, it is difficult to credibly know whether those initiatives are working as intended or how they can be improved over time.
  1. Establish a process of regular evidence reviews, providing leadership with an opportunity to access evaluation results and act on that information. That includes refining initiatives and strategies over time and, with robust evidence, making investment and divestment decisions.

Some agencies are already making progress toward significantly improving their strategic planning. At the federal level, for example, a legislative branch agency held workshops last month with staff on each of its four goals and related strategies. The workshops included quick training sessions on logic models and time for staff to develop logic models for proposed initiatives. Another example is the Small Business Administration. It develops a multi-year learning agenda, updated annually with new evidence, related to its strategic goals, such as supporting small business revenue and job growth.

The need for a strategic planning refresh is clear, especially given public employees’ widespread—and so often justified—cynicism with the traditional approach. It’s time to shift from strategic planning that emphasizes accountability for activities (merely implementing a plan) to one that focuses on accountability for learning, improvement and results. Integrating evidence-based decision making throughout the strategic planning process needs to become the new normal.

Andrew Feldman is a director in the public sector practice at Grant Thornton. He was previously a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and a special adviser on the evidence team at the White House Office of Management and Budget.