America Needs a Strategic Plan

A divided, directionless nation yearns for its next moonshot.

We’ve all heard it a thousand times.  No matter how difficult the project, whether it’s curing cancer, harnessing nuclear fusion – or in my case, decluttering the basement storage room – there is hope because, “If we can put a man on the moon…”

Putting a man on the moon was awesome, but it’s been more than 50 years since Neil Armstrong took his “small step” from the Apollo 11 module onto the lunar surface. I get why the accomplishment still inspires us today. My question is why nothing America has done in the past half-century comes close to stirring our collective pride and purpose in the same way.

It’s not like our government hasn’t done some great things since the Apollo 11 mission, they just haven’t felt like shared victories. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency gave birth to the internet, but the project played out way behind the scenes. The Clean Air Act dramatically reduced acid rain, but that achievement is overshadowed by the threat of Global Warming. The Affordable Care Act extended health insurance coverage to 30 million Americans, but only after a fractious partisan scrum that continues a decade later. Even the warp-speed COVID-19 vaccine feels more face-saving than fantastic after a botched pandemic response.

I was in my mother’s womb when Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins ventured to the moon. Ask most people my age how the federal government has performed during their lifetime, and I’m betting you’ll hear more about failure than success: Vietnam, Watergate, the Challenger explosion, Iran-Contra, Monica Lewinsky, 9/11, Iraq, the Great Recession. It’s a long and sorry list.

If Joe Biden does nothing more than restore dignity to the White House, I’ll be hard pressed to complain.  Really, though, with the array of historic, possibly even existential, challenges before us, we don’t have time for a transitional president. We need a man with a plan.

In their bestselling book, Built to Last, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras explain that one of the things that sets visionary companies apart is the use of what they dub “big hairy audacious goals” (BHAGs) to stimulate progress. Not surprisingly, they compare BHAGs to President Kennedy’s proclamation on May 25, 1961, “that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”  

The best businesses know the power of strategic planning. So do the best non-profits and even state and local governments. Where is our national strategic plan? Up to this point, efforts to develop one have come up short.

The 1993 Government Performance and Results Act required for the first time that federal departments set goals, measure results and report on progress. It was a good step, and it motivated me, as a young analyst at the Transportation Department, to devote my career to making government work better. The problem is that GPRA is nothing more than a reporting requirement. It does not set performance standards for departments, much less the kind of national goals that would pull departments together in a coordinated effort to achieve great outcomes.

Even more disappointing has been the federal government’s failure to develop a Key National Indicators System. A little-noticed provision tucked away in the Affordable Care Act established a commission to identify measures of the nation’s condition—economic well-being, health, the environment, public safety—and stand up an institute to collect and report the data. That was 10 years ago. The endeavor fizzled out so quickly that there is barely a trace of it left.

I remain stubbornly hopeful.

The president-elect’s transition website outlines four priorities: COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity, and climate change. Given the scope of the president’s responsibilities and the litany of problems we face at home and around the world, it must have been tempting to trot out all manner of initiatives, to check everybody’s boxes. Biden and his team must know that if everything’s a priority, nothing’s a priority.

What will it take for Biden to turn his priorities from sound bites into a strategic plan?  

First, give the American people BHAGs, like cutting the employment gap between whites and blacks in half by 2030. Put the goals on a refrigerator magnet and send it to every household, talk about the goals incessantly, create a website to track progress, and report the progress annually in the State of the Union address. 

Second, build the federal budget around national goals, not departments, and reorganize the Office of Management and Budget to coordinate action toward the goals.

Third, call on every sector of society to contribute ideas and assets to achieve the goals. Washington can’t be expected to go it alone.

Finally, get Congress on board. If it’s true that there’s more that unites Americans than divides us, maybe, just maybe, national goals can bring us together.

Andrew Kleine is the author of City on the Line: How Baltimore Transformed Its Budget to Beat the Great Recession and Deliver Outcomes (Rowman & Littlefield). He has served in leadership positions at the federal and local level and received the 2016 National Public Service Award from the National Academy of Public Administration. His Twitter handle is @awkleine