Strategic Planning in the Public Sector
Summary and Keywords
Strategic planning has become a fairly routine and common practice at all levels of government in the United States and elsewhere. It can be part of the broader practice of strategic management that links planning with implementation. Strategic planning can be applied to organizations, collaborations, functions (e.g., transportation or health), and to places ranging from local to national to transnational. Research results are somewhat mixed, but they generally show a positive relationship between strategic planning and improved organizational performance. Much has been learned about public-sector strategic planning over the past several decades but there is much that is not known.
There are a variety of approaches to strategic planning. Some are comprehensive process-oriented approaches (i.e., public-sector variants of the Harvard Policy Model, logical incrementalism, stakeholder management, and strategic management systems). Others are more narrowly focused process approaches that are in effect strategies (i.e., strategic negotiations, strategic issues management, and strategic planning as a framework for innovation). Finally, there are content-oriented approaches (i.e., portfolio analyses and competitive forces analysis).
The research on public-sector strategic planning has pursued a number of themes. The first concerns what strategic planning “is” theoretically and practically. The approaches mentioned above may be thought of as generic—their ostensive aspect—but they must be applied contingently and sensitively in practice—their performative aspect. Scholars vary in whether they conceptualize strategic planning in a generic or performative way. A second theme concerns attempts to understand whether and how strategic planning “works.” Not surprisingly, how strategic planning is conceptualized and operationalized affects the answers. A third theme focuses on outcomes of strategic planning. The outcomes studied typically have been performance-related, such as efficiency and effectiveness, but some studies focus on intermediate outcomes, such as participation and learning, and a small number focus on a broader range of public values, such as transparency or equity. A final theme looks at what contributes to strategic planning success. Factors related to success include effective leadership, organizational capacity and resources, and participation, among others.
A substantial research agenda remains. Public-sector strategic planning is not a single thing, but many things, and can be conceptualized in a variety of ways. Useful findings have come from each of these different conceptualizations through use of a variety of methodologies. This more open approach to research should continue. Given the increasing ubiquity of strategic planning across the globe, the additional insights this research approach can yield into exactly what works best, in which situations, and why, is likely to be helpful for advancing public purposes.
In the most widely used text in the field, strategic planning is defined as “a deliberative, disciplined effort to produce decisions and actions that shape and guide what an organization or other entity [such as a collaboration, function, or community or region] is, what it does, and why it does it” (Bryson, 2011, pp. 7–8). Defined in this manner, strategic planning consists of a set or family of concepts, procedures, tools, and practices meant to help decision makers and other stakeholders address what is truly important for their organizations and/or places. Additionally, approaches to strategic planning vary in their purposes; formality; temporal horizon; comprehensiveness; organizational, inter-organizational and/or geographic focus; emphasis on data and analysis; extent of participation; locus of decision-making; connection to implementation; and so on. Successful use of strategic planning is thus dependent on which approach is used, for what purposes, and in what context (Bryson, Berry, & Yang, 2010; Ferlie & Ongaro, 2015).
Strategic planning can be part of the broader practice of strategic management that links planning with implementation (Poister, Pitts, & Edwards, 2010; Talbot, 2010). It can be applied to organizations, collaborations, functions (e.g., transportation or health) and places ranging from local to national and international (Albrechts & Balducci, 2013). Note, however, that organizational, community, function-oriented, or place-based strategies have numerous sources besides explicit planning (Bryson, 2011; Ferlie & Ongaro, 2015). This entry focuses solely on planning.
Over the past 40 years in the United States, strategic planning by governments and public agencies has become increasingly widespread. All federal agencies have been required since 1993 to engage in strategic planning as a result of the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 and the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act of 2010 (https://www.performance.gov/). Surveys over the years have indicated that an increasingly large percentage of governments at the state and local levels currently use strategic planning (Poister & Streib, 2005; Jimenez, 2013). Strategic planning is also increasingly common around the globe, including in non-English-speaking countries and those with an administrative law culture, such as Italy and France (e.g., Joyce & Drumaux, 2014; Ferlie & Ongaro, 2015; Balducci, Fedeli, & Pasqui, 2011; Albrechts, Balducci, & Hillier, 2016).
Yet, why strategic planning has become an increasingly standard practice is unclear. Understanding the reasons why it is used in different contexts is thus an important topic for future research, in part because those reasons are likely to affect the results of using it. Possible explanations include faddishness (Pfeffer & Sutton, 2006), coercion (Radin, 2006; Tama, 2015), normative mimesis (DiMaggio & Powell 1983; Tama, 2015), or prior relationships and experience with potential strategic planning participants (Percoco, 2016). On the other hand, strategic planning also may be adopted because users think it will help them figure out what their organizations should be doing, how, and why. In other words, strategic planning in some circumstances may provide a way of sense-making, or knowing, helpful to decision makers (Bryson, Crosby, & Bryson, 2009), especially within the framework of what is called the New Public Management (NPM).
NPM is a reform narrative that has explicitly or implicitly guided much government reform in the United States, UK, Australia, and New Zealand, and to a lesser extent elsewhere (Pollitt & Bouckaert, 2011). NPM involves a significant break with (or at least a shifting of emphasis from) prior eras when government agencies were more typically organized as large, public Weberian bureaucracies in charge of direct service delivery and accountable exclusively, or at least principally, to their political masters. In contrast, NPM emphasizes: public choice; the applicability of principal-agent models to controlling government agencies, managers and those with whom they contract; the importance of customer service and focusing on results or outcomes; managers having more discretion in how they go about achieving results; and less reliance on rules and regulations.
In this context, and given the increased discretion managers and often agencies are supposed to have, strategic planning and strategic management are likely to be far more useful (Ferlie & Ongaro, 2015; Hansen & Ferlie, 2016). On the other hand, NPM reforms also may conflict with more traditional bureaucratic controls that have been an important part of accountability requirements in a democracy (Kettl, 2013). For example, in one study Moynihan (2006, p. 77) finds that US state governments “emphasized strategic planning and performance measurement, but were less successful in implementing reforms that would enhance managerial authority, undermining the logic that promised performance improvements.” NPM, in other words, can be yet another “tide of reform” that is layered on top of previous tides of government reform, and the interactions among these reforms are often conflictual, hard to assess, and can and do undermine agency effectiveness (Light, 1998).
This entry is organized into the following sections. First, we discuss the meaning of the adjective strategic in front of planning, in contrast to other adjectives such as long-range, program or project, or action planning. Second, we discuss briefly the applicability of strategic planning to organizations, collaborations, cross-boundary functions, and places. Third, we discuss how the various approaches to strategic planning have been conceptualized and what research shows, if anything, regarding their use and effectiveness. Fourth, we look at important themes in the research and implications for future research. Finally, we offer a set of conclusions.
What Makes Public-Sector Planning Strategic?
The roots of public-sector strategic planning are originally mostly military and tied to statecraft (Freedman, 2013). Starting in the 1960s, however, most of the development of the concepts, procedures, tools and practices of strategic planning has occurred in the for-profit sector. Public-sector strategic planning got a serious start in the US in the 1980s (e.g., Eadie, 1983). This history has been documented by Mintzberg, Ahlstrand, and Lampel (2009) and Ferlie and Ongaro (2015).
Public-sector strategic planning is a subset of planning, but what exactly makes it strategic? All or most of the following features are typically used to characterize public-sector planning as strategic (e.g., Kaufman & Jacobs, 1987; Poister & Streib, 1999; Christensen, 1999; Conroy & Berke, 2004; Chakraborty et al., 2011; Albrechts & Balducci, 2013; Bryson & Slotterback, 2016, pp. 121–122):
• Close attention to context and to thinking strategically about how to tailor the strategic planning approach to the context, even as a purpose of the planning typically is to change the context in some important way.
• Careful thinking about purposes and goals, including attention to situational requirements (e.g., political, legal, administrative, ethical, and environmental requirements).
• An initial focus on a broad agenda and later moving to a more selective action focus.
• An emphasis on systems thinking; that is, working to understand the dynamics of the overall system being planned for as it functions—or ideally should function—across space and time, including the interrelationships among constituent subsystems.
• Careful attention to stakeholders, in effect making strategic planning an approach to practical politics; typically multiple levels of government and multiple sectors are explicitly or implicitly involved in the process of strategy formulation and implementation.
• A focus on strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats; and a focus on competitive and collaborative advantages.
• A focus on thinking about potential futures and then making decisions in light of their future consequences; in other words, joining temporal with spatial systemic thinking.
• Careful attention to implementation; strategy that cannot be operationalized effectively is hardly strategic.
• A clear realization that strategies are both deliberately set in advance and emergent in practice.
• In short, a desire to stabilize what should be stabilized, while maintaining appropriate flexibility in terms of goals, policies, strategies, and processes to manage complexity, take advantage of important opportunities, and advance public purposes, resilience and sustainability in the face of an uncertain future.
The list is extensive and approaches vary in how well they attend to each item in both theory and practice. The underlying hypothesis guiding research and much practice is that strategic planning by public-sector organizations will lead to better performance by these organizations. Two issues, however, become immediately obvious: first, how does one operationally assess the “strategic-ness” of the planning, and second, what effects do different levels of “strategic-ness” have on results of various kinds? Unfortunately, the empirical research on public-sector strategic planning in general, and especially its connection with implementation, is remarkably thin, given how widespread the use of strategic planning is (Bryson, Berry, & Yang, 2010; Poister, Pitts, & Edwards, 2010; George & Desmidt, 2014). That said, the few studies that have explored these issues have generally, though not always, found a positive causal effect of strategic planning on implementation success.
Applicability to Organizations, Collaborations, Functions, and Places
At its most basic, strategic planning involves three things: deliberations around important issues of ends and means, decisions, and actions.1 The various approaches to strategic planning help make the process reasonably orderly, increase the likelihood that what is important is actually recognized and addressed, and typically allow more people to participate in the process. When the process is applied to an organization as a whole on an ongoing basis, or at least to significant parts of it, usually it is necessary to construct a strategic management system, or what is often called a performance management system (see the section “Ways in Which Strategic Planning Has Been Conceptualized”). The system allows the various parts of the process to be integrated in appropriate ways, and engages the organization in strategic management, not just strategic planning.
When applied to a function or collaboration that crosses organizational boundaries, or to a community, cross-organizational sponsorship of some sort is usually necessary. Working groups or task forces probably will need to be organized at various times to deal with specific strategic issues or to oversee the implementation of specific strategies. Special efforts will be needed to engage traditionally underrepresented groups (Innes & Booher, 2010). Because so many more people and groups will need to be involved, and because implementation will have to rely more on consent than authority, the process is likely to be much more time-consuming and iterative than strategic planning applied to an organization. On the other hand, more time spent on exploring issues and reaching agreement may be made up later through speedy implementation (Innes, 1996; Bovaird, 2007; Innes & Booher, 2010). Strategic planning in an organization typically involves a mixture of lateral collaboration and vertical hierarchy. In interorganizational collaborations, lateral collaborative processes overshadow hierarchy, yet attention to the hierarchical structures and power differences that exist within the collaboration and in its participating organizations will be vital in developing and implementing a strategic plan (Bryson, Crosby, & Stone, 2015).
In addition, when a community is involved, special efforts will be necessary to make sure that resulting strategic plans are compatible with the community’s spatial comprehensive plan, along with the various devices used to implement it, such as capital improvements programs, spatial subdivision controls, a zoning ordinance, and official maps (Bryson & Slotterback, 2016). City planners can play a crucial mediating role in linking the broadly inclusive visioning and goal-setting processes of strategic planning with the ongoing formal decision-making mechanisms of cities and regions (Legacy, 2012; Quick, 2015).
Ways in Which Strategic Planning Has Been Conceptualized
Because planning must attend to context in order to be strategic, approaches to strategic planning may be represented as generic in form but in practice are likely to be highly contingent (Ferlie & Ongaro, 2015, p. 123). Generic approaches to strategic planning may emphasize process or content. A key contingency is whether the approach is being applied at the organizational or subunit level, to a boundary-crossing function or collaboration, or to a community or place. We briefly review prominent approaches below, drawing from Bryson (2002, 2015) and Ferlie and Ongaro (2015).
Comprehensive Process Approaches
Process approaches may be characterized as comprehensive or partial in what they consider. We treat more comprehensive process approaches first, including those influenced by the Harvard Policy Model, logical incrementalism, stakeholder management, and strategic management systems approaches. Next, we consider more partial process approaches that are, in effect, strategies. These include strategic negotiations, strategic issues management, and strategic planning as a framework for innovation. Finally, we consider two content approaches, namely, portfolio and competitive forces analyses.
The Harvard Policy Model. The Harvard Policy Model, with suitable adaptions, has had a strong influence on the most widely used generic processes in the public sector. The Harvard model seeks the best fit between a firm or strategic business unit (SBU) and its environment (Andrews, 1980; Bower, Bartlett, Christensen, & Pearson, 1991). This is achieved via an analysis of the focal unit’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats; and the values of senior management and the social obligations of the firm. Planning is separate from and precedes implementation. The model assumes there is a senior management group that is in charge and able to implement its decisions. The model does not offer specific advice on how to develop strategies.
The model can be applied in public-sector organizations, especially at the program or departmental levels, but typically a number of adaptations are necessary. First, a broader range of stakeholders must be considered, often including elected policy boards. Second a portfolio approach of some kind is often needed to allow strategic decision making for a portfolio of agencies or programs. A strategic issues management approach is needed because much public work is typically quite political, and articulating and addressing issues are at the heart of much political decision making. When applied to a collaboration or place, strategic planning should be paired with portfolio, issues management, and stakeholder management approaches, given the absence of hierarchical authority and shared-power nature of these contexts.
Public-sector adaptions of the Harvard model all draw on a roughly similar sequence of activities, while recognizing that following some sort of strict order is often not feasible, necessary, or even desirable (e.g., Nutt & Backoff, 1992; Bryson, 2011). These activities include:
• Preparing for strategic planning by determining what elements should be included and a timeline. Stakeholder analysis is also valuable at this point to identify who should be involved in the process.
• Creating, clarifying, or updating organizational mission, vision, values, and goals and clarifying any applicable legal statutes or mandates.
• Assessing external and internal environments by analyzing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.
• Identifying and analyzing issues facing the organization, based on upcoming challenges and/or changes coming to the organization.
• Identifying potential strategies for effectively addressing the issues.
• Assessing the feasibility of strategies using reasonable criteria.
• Developing and implementing plans and related desirable changes.
• Evaluating, monitoring, and updating the plan continually as new information becomes available.
• Reassessing strategies and the strategic planning process.
A handful of researchers has tested the assumption that pursuing all or most of these activities will lead to strategy implementation success. For example, in one of the most complete tests to date, Elbanna, Andrews, and Pollanen (2016), in a study of 188 Canadian government organizations across federal, provincial, and local levels, found that formal strategic planning had a strong positive effect on strategy implementation, that the quality of managerial involvement in the process mediates the effect in a positive way, and that formal strategic planning can be especially beneficial in the face of stakeholder uncertainty. Other studies that have operationalized strategic planning in roughly analogous ways have find roughly analogous positive effects of more formal planning on outcomes (e.g. Walker et al., 2010; Andrews, Boyne, Law, & Walker, 2012; Poister, Edwards, & Pasha, 2013). These findings are at odds with arguments put forward by Mintzberg 1994), Mintzberg, Ahlstrand, and Lampel (2009) that formal strategic planning is likely to hinder strategy formulation and implementation in business organizations. This may be because “effective control in the public sector may be best exercised ex ante, that is, through formal planning, instead of ex post through organizational performance measurement” (Elbanna et al., 2016, p. 1035).
Furthermore, the findings are also at odds with the conventional wisdom that rational approaches are untenable in the public sector because of the technical problems of acquiring necessary data and information, and because of the political problems raised by competing stakeholders, including issues between the planners and those being planned for. Boyne, Gould-Williams, Law, and Walker (2004), however, found that in a recent attempt by UK local authorities to introduce a new planning system, the statistical results suggest that the problems of rational planning are largely technical (meaning lack of resources and expertise) rather than political. The link between rationality and politics thus clearly merits additional attention.
Logical incrementalism. Quinn (1980) was critical of formal strategic planning when taken to extremes of analysis and centralization; when it failed to take politics, power, and relationships into account; and when it failed to appreciate how incrementalism is important for learning and building consensus. In contrast, he emphasized the importance of incrementalism but only in support of overall organizational purposes. The idea of incrementalism guided by a set of overall organizational purposes (even as it may lead to changing the purposes) provides the link between formal strategic planning and logical incrementalism. In other words, Quinn sees formal strategic planning and logical incrementalism as desirable complements and not as inherently antagonistic. They are antagonistic only if strategic planning is taken to extremes, or if incrementalism ceases to be logical, meaning it no longer occurs within a broader framework of purposes.
Logical incrementalism is an approach that, in effect, fuses strategy formulation and implementation, and thus strategic planning and strategic management. The strengths of the approach are its ability to handle complexity and change, its emphasis on minor as well as major decisions, its attention to informal as well as formal processes, and its political realism. Beyond that, incremental changes in degree can add up over time into changes in kind. The major weakness of the approach is that it does not guarantee that the various loosely linked decisions will add up to fulfillment of organizational purposes.
Logical incrementalism is applicable to public organizations, as long as it is possible to establish some overarching set of strategic objectives to be served by the approach. Public organizations can (and likely often do) pursue some sort of strategic planning to establish broad purposes and logical incrementalism to reach their goals. Indeed, one study found that organizations that do strategic planning improve—but do so even more when they pair it with logical incrementalism (Poister, Edwards, & Pasha, 2013).
At the community level, there is a close relationship between logical incrementalism and collaboration. Indeed, collaborative goals and arrangements typically emerge in an incremental fashion as organizations individually and collectively explore their self-interests and possible collaborative advantages, establish collaborative relationships, and manage changes incrementally within a collaborative framework (Huxham & Vangen, 2005; Innes & Booher, 2010).
Stakeholder management. Freeman (1984) states that strategy can be understood as an organization’s mode of relating to or building bridges to its stakeholders. Stakeholder may be defined as any individual, group, or organization that is affected by, or that can affect, the future of the organization. Freeman argues, as do others who emphasize the importance of attending to stakeholders, that a strategy will only be effective if it satisfies the needs of multiple groups (Gomes, Liddle, & Gomes, 2010; Walker, Andrews, Boyne, Meier, & O’Toole, 2010; Ackermann & Eden, 2011). Because many interest groups have stakes in public organizations, functions, and communities, and because the approach incorporates economic, political, and social concerns, it is applicable to the public sector. In addition, some forms of stakeholder engagement such as citizen participation are often mandated in government decision-making process (Brody, Godschalk, & Burby, 2003; Buckwalter, 2014). Successful use of the model assumes that key decision makers can achieve reasonable agreement about who the key stakeholders are and what the response to their claims should be.
The strengths of the stakeholder model are its recognition of the many claims—both complementary and competing—placed on organizations by insiders and outsiders and its awareness of the need to satisfy at least the key stakeholders if the organization is to survive. Because of its attention to stakeholders, the approach can be particularly useful in planning for cross-boundary functions, such as transportation (Neskova & Guo, 2012; Poister, Thomas, & Berryman, 2013; Deyle & Wiedenman, 2014) and planning for places (Brody et al., 2003; Edelenbos & Klijn, 2005).
The primary weakness of the model is that genuine collaboration is difficult to achieve, as found by Vigar in transportation planning in England (2006). Another study of spatial planning in India found an additional difficulty in broadening stakeholder engagement beyond elite participants (Vidyarthi, Hoch, & Basmajian, 2013). Another challenge is the absence of criteria with which to judge competing claims and the need for more advice on developing strategies to deal with divergent stakeholder interests.
Strategic management systems. These are approaches that allow public leaders and managers to strategize about, and coordinate, important decisions across levels and functions within an organization, and across organizations (Talbot, 2010; Clarke & Fuller, 2010). Strategic planning is a necessary component (Poister & Streib, 1999). Strategic management systems vary along several dimensions: the comprehensiveness of decision areas included, the formal rationality of the planning and decision processes, and the tightness of control exercised over implementation of the decisions, as well as how the strategy process itself will be tailored to the organization and managed. The strength of these systems is their attempt to coordinate the various elements of an organization’s strategy across levels and functions. In doing so, they can help integrate better what NPM reforms have often fragmented (Christensen & Laegreid, 2007). Their weakness is that excessive comprehensiveness, prescription, and control can drive out attention to mission, strategy, and innovation, and can exceed the ability of participants to comprehend the system and the information it produces (Mintzberg, Ahlstrand, & Lampel, 2009).
Strategic management systems are potentially applicable to public organizations (and to a lesser extent, communities), because regardless of the nature of the particular organization, managers must coordinate at least some decision making across levels and functions and concentrate on whether the organization is implementing its strategies and accomplishing its mission. Some public organizations—such as hospitals, police and fire departments, and the military—often make use of relatively comprehensive formal strategic planning and implementation systems. The US federal government is moving toward a reasonably comprehensive formal system (Moynihan, 2013). Early assessments of the routines built into the new system show they increase performance information use and learning (Moynihan & Kroll, 2016). Most government organizations, however, typically use less comprehensive, less formal, and more decentralized systems (Poister & Streib, 2005). These systems, as well as those for collaborations and places, typically focus on a few goals and issues, rely on a decision process in which politics plays a major role, and control something other than program outcomes (e.g. budget expenditures, contracting processes, etc.) (Bryson, 2011, pp. 323–341).
Unfortunately, there are remarkably few scholarly assessments of the strategic planning component of any strategic management systems. One of the best is Hendrick (2003), a study of Milwaukee’s strategic planning system. She found that departments with more comprehensive, formal, and rational processes had better performance, a result generally in line with other studies. The role of politics in these systems, however, cannot be ignored. Gilmour and Lewis (2006), for example, found that assessments of the efforts of US government departments that included their strategic planning were used to reward “conservative” programs and punish “liberal” ones in the George W. Bush administration.
The applicability of strategic management systems to the community level is problematic, given the shared-power nature of these domains. In a comparative case study, for example, Loh (2012) found four ways in which a community planning process can fail. These include disconnects between: residents’ true desires and stated plan goals; plan goals and implementation steps; implementation steps and actual legal devices needed for implementation; and enforcement tied to these devices.
Partial Process Approaches
Considered here are three partial process approaches. Each is, in effect, a kind of strategy. These include: strategic negotiations, strategic issues management, and strategic planning as a framework for innovation.
Strategic negotiations. Strategy is often viewed as a partial resolution of organizational issues through a highly political process. Pettigrew (1973) and Mintzberg and Waters (1985) helped pioneer this process approach, but its roots go back to public sector accounts of strategizing (Allison, 1971). Negotiations are increasingly a part of governance through a variety of quasi-legislative and quasi-judicial processes (Bingham, Nabatchi, & O’Leary, 2005; Emerson & Nabatchi, 2015). These processes include empowered community visioning processes that create political mandates, negotiated rule-making, and environmental dispute resolution processes.
The strength of the approach is that it acknowledges that power is shared in many public situations and that cooperation and negotiation are required in order to reach agreements. The main weakness is that though the process can facilitate agreements, questions can and often do arise about the technical quality, process legitimacy, and democratic responsibility of results (Page, Stone, Bryson, & Crosby, 2015). Interestingly, Innes (1996) and Innes and Booher (2010) finds that while the negotiation processes can look messy, they quite often result in extremely rational, politically acceptable, and implementable solutions.
Strategic issues management. A major shortcoming of the Harvard model was a missing step between the SWOT analysis and strategy formulation. This was remedied with the addition of the step of identifying strategic issues as part of the strategic planning process, as well as less comprehensive annual reviews. This approach is especially important for public organizations, in particular those with continually or rapidly changing environments, since the agendas of these organizations consist of issues that should be managed strategically (Ackermann & Eden, 2011). In addition, many organizations have developed strategic issue management processes separate from annual strategic planning processes. Many important issues emerge too quickly to be handled as part of an annual or less frequent process. The approach also applies to functions, collaborations, or communities, as long as some group, organization, or coalition is able to engage in the process and to manage the issue.
The strength of the approach is its ability to recognize and analyze key issues quickly. The main weakness is that in general the approach offers no specific advice on exactly how to frame the issues other than to precede their identification with a situational analysis of some sort. Nutt and Backoff (1992, 1993) and Bryson, Cunningham, & Lokkesmoe (2002) have gone the furthest in remedying this defect within the context of public strategic planning. Fairhurst (2011) and Gray, Purdy, and Ansani (2015), among others, provide useful advice outside of that context.
Strategic planning as a framework for innovation. In contrast with a strategic management system approach that can decrease innovation, other approaches use strategic planning as a chance to innovate and provide creative solutions for upcoming challenges (Osborne & Brown, 2012). These approaches rely on many of the same components discussed above but differ in that they emphasize fostering innovation and creating a more entrepreneurial culture within the organization. This approach can be difficult to use in some public organizations, particularly those with fewer resources to test approaches or room to make potentially costly mistakes. Furthermore, public organizations are often operating in highly visible and accountable contexts making any mistakes or learning opportunities more visible and problematic.
While there is a growing body of scholarly work on innovation in public organizations, there is little research on the connection between strategic planning and innovation. An exception is Andrews et al. (2012, p. 155), who found that “organizations that emphasize a strategy of innovation get an even higher payoff when they fit this strategy to a process characterized by flexibility and negotiation with powerful stakeholders” (i.e., logical incrementalism). Another exception is Borins (2014, pp. 73–93), who in a large-scale study of successful public-sector innovations, found a strong reliance on strategic planning (what he calls “comprehensive planning”) by the innovators, rather than “groping along,” which is Behn’s (1988) term for a manager-focused version of logical incrementalism. The relationship was contingent, however, on who the innovators were and whether new technology was involved. If the innovators were managers, planning was favored; if the innovators were frontline staff, groping along was preferred. If new technology was involved, groping along was used more frequently.
The process approaches assist planners with ways of doing strategic planning but offer little advice as to what needs to be in strategies and plans. Strategic content approaches help by providing a way to determine the content of strategies that best fit the internal and external conditions facing an organization. We consider two: portfolio approaches and competitive analysis.
Portfolio approaches. These approaches conceptualize strategic planning as a way of helping manage a portfolio of entities (e.g., departments, programs, projects, budget items) in a strategic way. The portfolio arrays the entities against dimensions deemed strategically significant (e.g., the desirability of doing something against the capacity to do it). The resulting array helps clarify decisions about what to do. The strength of the approach is that it helps organizations make sense of and manage the various entities for which it is, or might be, responsible. The weaknesses of the approach include the difficulty of deciding on the dimensions, arraying entities against dimensions, understanding how to fit the approach into a broader strategic planning process, and managing the politics of winners and losers. While many public organizations at least implicitly make use of portfolio approaches, we know of no studies evaluating use of the approach in a public-sector strategic planning context.
Competitive analysis. Another approach uses competitive analysis to determine some of what should be in a strategic plan. The language may be difficult for public sector organizations, since they may not see themselves as competing for customers. However, many public or quasi-public organizations are clearly in competitive environments. For example, many services in most countries have to compete at least in some ways with businesses for customers. Vining (2011) adapted Porter’s (1998) private sector five forces model for the public sector by adding political and economic considerations that are more appropriate for any public sector organization. Vining hypothesizes that organizational autonomy—which is necessary to have some control over strategy—depends on a modified set of Porter’s five forces. Vining’s adaptations include: the power of agency sponsors/customers, power of suppliers, threat of substitute products, political influence, and the intensity of rivalry between agencies. Autonomy is hypothesized to impact organizational performance but can also help organizations determine what strategies are best suited to their internal and external conditions. To the best of our knowledge, the usefulness of the model has not been tested.
In sum, there are a variety of approaches to strategic planning. In other words, it is not a single thing but rather a set of concepts, procedures, tools, and practices. These presumably need to be applied contingently in particular settings in order to produce useful outcomes. Indeed, hybrid applications that blend approaches are often or even typically found (Bryson, 2011; Favoreu, Carassus, Gardey, & Maurel, 2015).
Prominent Research Themes and Implications for Future Research
In this section, we look at a number of themes that have animated research on public-sector strategic planning. We also consider implications for future research.
What is Public-Sector Strategic Planning?
How strategic planning is defined makes a difference in how it is studied and what the results of those studies are likely to be. As noted above, there are a variety of approaches to strategic planning and there is a reasonably clear set of criteria for determining whether an approach is strategic or not. The various approaches may be viewed as generic—their ostensive aspect—but must be applied contingently in context—their performative aspect (Feldman & Pentland, 2008, pp. 302–303). This interpretation is consistent with much of the contemporary literature in public administration and urban and regional planning. The view is at odds, however, with some of the work in the business management literature associated primarily with Mintzberg (1994) and Mintzberg, Ahlstrand, and Lampel (2009, pp. 49–84), who by definition limits strategic planning to a formalized, rigid, highly analytic, staff-driven exercise (i.e. an ostensive view). In other words, scholars in public administration and planning take a far more flexible view of what strategic planning is, based largely on studying what people do when they say they are doing strategic planning (i.e., how strategic planning is performed).
Does Strategic Planning “Work,” and How Does It Work?
Assessments of whether and how well strategic planning “works” depend on how it is defined and studied.2 An important methodological distinction is between what Mohr (1982) calls variance studies and process studies (see also Van de Ven, 2007). In variance studies, public-sector strategic planning is essentially treated as a routine or practice that is a fixed object, not as a generative system comprising many interacting and changeable parts. Variance studies typically assume that strategic planning is an intermediary, to use Latour’s (2005, p. 58) term, meaning the planning itself is essentially invariant and merely the transporter of a cause from inputs to outputs. Inputs, in other words, are assumed to predict outputs fairly well as long as the “transporter” is transporting.
Studies of strategic planning in government do report mixed results. Roberts (2000) and Radin (2006) are among public management scholars who have questioned the effectiveness of strategic planning in government, particularly mandated strategic planning in the US federal government. In both studies, the authors viewed strategic planning as essentially an invariant intermediary. On the other hand, the majority of variance studies of public strategic planning that have used linear regression methodologies, have found positive (though not necessarily large) effects (e.g., Borins, 1998, 2014; Boyne & Gould-Williams, 2003; Andrews, Boyne, & Walker, 2006; Meier, et al., 2007; Andrews et al., 2012; Elbanna et al., 2016).
Structural equation modeling, which has been underused, could be helpful. This type of analysis would allow researchers to determine whether or not strategic planning improves intermediate outcomes such as, for example, communication and conflict management strategies and whether or not intermediate outcomes improve performance (e.g., Bryson & Bromiley, 1993). It would also allow researchers to analyze how much of the impact is direct or indirect.
Process studies, in contrast, generally assume that the key to understanding the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of strategic planning may lie in seeing it as a complex process approach to knowing and acting (Ferlie & Ongaro, 2015). In the process, organizational (or multiorganizational) stakeholders engage with one another in a series of associations and performances over time to explore and ultimately agree on and implement answers to a series of Socratic questions. These include: What should we be doing? How should we do it? What purposes or goals would be served by doing it? And how can we be sure we are doing what we agreed we ought to do, and that we are achieving the effects we want?
Few studies have taken this approach. Exceptions include Wheeland (2004) and Bryson, Crosby, and Bryson (2009). The latter authors traced strategic planning as a complex cognitive, behavioral, social, and political practice in which thinking, acting, learning, and knowing matter and with which some associations are reinforced, others are created, and still others are dropped in the process of formulating and implementing strategies and plans. They showed that terms such as process steps; planners; stakeholder analyses; strategic plans; and mission, vision, goals, strategies, actions, and performance indicators are all relevant to any study of strategic planning in practice but not as rigidly defined terms. In short, these authors sought to understand how these terms are performed and what that meant for understanding strategic planning as a way of knowing that is consequential for organizational performance.
Our view is that the field will be advanced by pursuing a variety of variance and process studies. Variance studies can show in the aggregate what works and what does not. Detailed process studies, and especially comparative, longitudinal case studies, can help show how it works. In particular, much more knowledge is needed about what the actual process design features and social mechanisms are that lead to strategic planning success (or not) (Mayntz, 2004; Bryson, 2010). Barzelay and Campbell (2003), Barzelay and Jacobsen (2009) are among the few studies to actually focus on the importance of design features and social mechanisms for strategic planning.
What are the Outcomes of Strategic Planning?
Most studies of public-sector strategic planning have focused on performance outcomes, especially target achievement, efficiency, and effectiveness. In terms of these outcomes, strategic planning generally seems to have a beneficial effect. Some students have found that perceptions of improved performance are linked to strategic planning (e.g., Boyne & Gould-Williams, 2003; Poister & Streib, 2005; Ugboro, Obeng, & Spann, 2010). Others have avoided common source bias and perceptions of performance by connecting secondary performance measures with survey data (e.g., Andrews et al., 2009; Walker, Andrews, Boyne, Meier, & O’Toole, 2010; Poister, Edwards, & Pasha, 2013; Elbanna, Andrews, & Pollanen, 2016). The findings have been mixed, but generally support a positive strategic planning-performance link.
However, as laid out by Poister, Pitts, and Edwards (2010), the link between strategic planning and performance needs further investigation. As noted, research indicates that strategic planning generally, though not always, leads to better performance. The mixed findings are likely due to a number of factors. First, performance in the public sector is notoriously hard to operationalize. This task can be very difficult in municipal and state governments, where departments and agencies have different purposes and different measures of performance. Obviously, many different types of performance should be taken into account beyond fiscal measures (Poister, 2003).
Second, a theoretical link between strategic planning and performance has not been well established. Poister, Edwards, and Pasha (2013) use goal setting theory originated by Locke and Latham (see Latham, 2004). However, this theoretical link needs more fleshing out, which leads to a third observation: there are likely to be a variety of direct and indirect links between strategic planning and performance.
Some studies have emphasized the importance of intermediate outcomes, such as participation (see earlier citations), visioning (e.g., Helling, 1998), situated learning (e.g., Vigar, 2006), and communication and conflict management strategies (e.g., Bryson & Bromiley, 1993). Very few studies have focused on equity, social justice, transparency, legitimacy, accountability, or the broader array of public values (Cook & Harrison, 2015; Beck Jorgensen & Bozeman, 2007). Clearly, attending to a range of outcomes and how they are produced would be very helpful.
What Contributes to Strategic Planning Success?
Research indicates that organizations can face significant barriers before and during strategic planning that can potentially outweigh any benefits. First, public sector organizations need to build the necessary capacity to do strategic planning. The skills and resources to do strategic planning in the public sector should match the complexity of the processes and practices involved (Streib & Poister, 1990). Necessary resources include, for example, financial capacity (Boyne, Gould-Williams, Law, & Walker, 2004; Wheeland, 2004), knowledge about strategic planning (Hendrick, 2003), and the capability to gather and analyze data and to judge between potential solutions (Streib & Poister, 1990).
Additionally, leadership of different kinds is needed in order to engage in effective strategic planning. Process sponsors have the authority, power, and resources to initiate and sustain the process. Process champions are needed to help manage the day-to-day process (Bryson, 2011). Transformational practices by sponsors and champions, as well as the groups they engage appears to help energize participants, enhance public service motivation, increase mission valence, and encourage performance information use (e.g., Moynihan, Pandey, & Wright, 2013), all of which are important for strategic planning.
Broad participation generally can also improve the process, as well as the resulting plan by giving various stakeholders a sense of ownership and commitment. We know that different perspectives can enrich any analyses and the eventual implementation of the plan (Burby, 2003; Bryson, 2011). Several studies demonstrate that citizens can help throughout the process by educating government staff about issues and with decision making about solutions (Blair, 2004). Including citizens has the additional benefit of reducing citizen cynicism about government (Kissler et al., 1998). Likewise, employees from all levels of the organization may need to be included in strategic planning for their input and knowledge about their respective areas of the organization (Wheeland, 2004; Donald, Lyons, & Tribbey, 2001). That said, we also know that there is great variation in how stakeholders are included, and at least two studies show that participation of key stakeholders (internal and external) often remains shallow and elitist (Vigar, 2006; Vidyarthi et al., 2013). Moreover, inclusion and broad stakeholder participation may not always make sense (Thomas, 1995). There do not seem to be any strategic planning studies indicating when it might be advisable not to include stakeholders in public-sector strategic planning, but one hopes such studies will be forthcoming.
Finally, integration with other strategic management practices can improve strategic planning. Poister (2010) writes that integrating strategic planning and performance management more closely will likely improve performance and decision making about planning. For example, Kissler et al. (1998) found that this link improved the strategic plan for the US state of Ohio because planners had a better idea of where the state stood in terms of social and financial performance. Plan implementation also improved because plan progress was linked to measurable outcomes making it easier to monitor progress. However, performance is not the only area for integration. It is also known that strategic planning should be integrated with budgeting, human resource management, and information technology management, although exactly how is unclear. One survey of local government practices in the United States found that many governments do some integration between strategic planning and other resource management practices but are not very sophisticated in how they do it (Poister & Streib, 2005). That said, there is evidence that strategic planning can help inform budgetary and human capital allocation (Berry & Wechsler, 1995, 2010).
Conclusions and an Agenda for Future Research
Strategic planning in the public sector increasingly has been institutionalized as a common practice at all levels of government in the United States and several other countries. There is also reasonable agreement on what it means to be strategic when it comes to planning. There is also reasonably good evidence that public-sector strategic planning generally helps produce desirable outcomes and good research that provides the beginnings of an understanding of why and how that is so.
It is important to realize, however, that public-sector strategic planning is a set of concepts, procedures, tools, and practices that must be applied sensitively and contingently in specific situations if the presumed benefits of strategic planning are to be realized. In other words, there are a variety of generic approaches to strategic planning, the boundaries between them are not necessarily clear, and strategic planning in practice typically is a hybrid. In addition, it is unclear how best to conceptualize context and match processes to context in order to produce desirable outcomes. For example, should context be viewed as a backdrop for action or as actually constitutive of action (Ferlie & Ongaro, 2015, pp. 121–165)?
These observations lead to a fairly robust research agenda for the field. A list of important questions includes at least the following (see also Bryson, Berry, & Yang, 2010; Poister, Pitts, & Edwards, 2010; George & Desmidt, 2014):
• What are the important dimensions of internal and external context that make a difference for strategic planning, and which approaches are likely to work best, given the context? In what ways do internal and external stability or change in these dimensions make a difference? Of particular interest, what are or should be the links between public-sector strategic planning and politics, partisan and otherwise?
• What difference does it make whether strategic planning is applied to organizations, subunits of organizations, cross-boundary functions, collaborations, or places?
• How should the approach to strategic planning vary depending on the policy field in which it is applied and kind of issue being addressed? For example, what difference does it make if the policy area is education, health, public safety, transportation, or something else (Sandfort & Moulton, 2015)? What difference does it make if the issues are simple, complicated, complex, or wicked (Patton, 2011)?
• What kinds of resources (e.g., leadership, facilitation, staffing, technical support, political support, and competencies and skills) are needed for strategic planning to be effective?
• What are the ways in which participation by internal and external stakeholders make a difference? In other words, in which circumstances do which kinds of participation, by which kinds of stakeholders, and for which purposes make a difference?
• What difference do the various artifacts (e.g., mission, vision, and goal statements; strategic plans; background studies; performance measurements; evaluations) related to strategic planning make?
• What are or should be the connections both theoretically and practically between the various approaches to strategic planning and the other elements of strategic management systems, such as budgeting, human resources management, information technology, performance measurement, and implementation?
Finally, research questions should be pursued through research methodologies that conceptualize strategic planning in a variety of ways. As noted, public-sector strategic planning is not a single entity. Useful findings about strategic planning have come via multiple methodologies, including cross-sectional and longitudinal quantitative research, qualitative single and comparative case studies, and content analyses of plans. These studies have conceptualized strategic planning in a variety of ways, including as questions with Likert-scale answers, and as processes, practices, artifacts, and ways of knowing. The variety in methodologies is useful, as each helps reveal different things about strategic planning. Given the ubiquity of public-sector strategic planning, additional insights into exactly what works best, in which situations, and why, are likely to be helpful for advancing public purposes.
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