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Whither Strategic Planning in Public Administration? Part 1—A Brief Look at History and Current Practice

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tom R. Hulst
November 21, 2021


There have been many initiatives in recent decades to improve planning and strategy in government. As defined by George A. Boyne and Richard Walker in Strategic Management and Public Service Performance:  The Way Ahead, PAR, Supplement to V. 70, 2010, “Strategy sets a direction for collective effort, helps focus that effort on desired goals and promotes consistency in managerial actions over time and across parts of the organization.”  The variety of ways of pursuing planning in public administration has evolved like the flavor of the month—with a plethora of versions and permutations. The words and phrases used in the literature to describe planning in government are indicative of the multifaced nature of the function: planning, strategic planning, comprehensive planning, strategic management and strategic thinking. Here, planning and strategic planning are used interchangeably. Should the public sector devote substantial resources to strategic planning? Or should there be little or no planning at all? This article is the first of two-parts that provides context for the future of strategic planning in government.

Federal Initiatives to Link Plans, Strategy, Resource Allocation and Performance Indicators

Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was among the early pioneers in using strategic planning in government. The inauguration of Planning, Programing, Budgeting Systems (PPBS) in the 1960’s—a precursor to strategic planning—was an effort to produce efficiencies in budget allocations and deliver desired results. While achieving mixed success in federal agencies, sixteen states, many municipalities and school districts subsequently adopted PPBS. Indeed, in 2011 in State Performance-Based-Budgeting in Boom and Bust Years: An Analytical Framework and Survey of the States, PAR V. 71, 2011, Yilin Hou, et al., wrote that, “The concepts of measurement, performance and performance dialogues seem to have made a deep imprint on public life in the American states.” In the 1970’s the Nixon Administration launched management by objectives (MBO), an effort to create performance targets for federal agencies. The Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) adopted by Congress in 1993 required departments to formulate strategic plans. Every United States president since John F. Kennedy, supported aspects of strategic planning in the federal government save one—President Donald Trump. On December 23, 2020, Trump’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) revoked the requirement in Circular A-11 for agencies to write strategic plans and publish progress. Apparently, this business-executive-turned-president did not think strategic planning was worth the effort. Shortly after the inauguration of President Biden, however, OMB restored the strategic planning requirement.

State and Local Initiatives in Strategy and Planning: The Case of Washington State

Rebecca Hendrick observed in What is Wrong with Advice on Strategic Planning, PAR Supplement to V. 70, 2010, that, “The prodigious amount of empirical evidence collected thus far on strategic planning in government is fairly conclusive that the tool is widely used.” The history of planning in Washington state is perhaps illustrative of the growth of strategic planning in the United States and throughout the world.  Governor Daniel J. Evans introduced a version of PBBS and strategic planning in 1972 referred to as the Program Decision System (PDS). According to Tory Tjersland in Governmental Finance, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1975, “PDS was an initiative to identify state goals, policies and objectives and measure productivity of state agencies.”  Today, Washington requires state agencies to submit strategic plans and integrate performance measures that allow objective assessment of the achievement of departmental goals. 

Locally, strategic plans are completed for the Port of Tacoma, King County and the cities of Puyallup, Yakima and Spokane. The Growth Management Act of 1990 requires municipalities to prepare comprehensive plans. These plans include the elements of land-use, transportation, housing, utilities and capital facilities. Long-range plans are also required for roads and bridges in the state. Statutes require municipalities to file a Six-Year Transportation Plan with the state by July 1 of each year. Public utilities also employ planning and forecasting tools in maintaining quality municipal services such as waste disposal, electricity and water supply.

Nearly all colleges, universities and school districts in Washington have completed strategic plans. The plan at the University of Washington declares that the University should be thinking, “Beyond any given biennium.” Tacoma Community College’s plan contains themes, goals and action plans to, “Position it for the future.” In early 2000, Dr. Pam Veltry surveyed 208 school districts in Washington state concerning strategic planning and student learning. She found that districts in the planning process for four years or more demonstrated increased student achievement in grades 4, 7 and 10 on the Washington State Assessment. Veltry also learned that these districts produced more students moving from levels one and two to the mastery levels (three and four) on the fourth-grade assessment. The state board of education in Washington subsequently linked school accreditation to school improvement planning.

It is evident that public officials commonly employ the tools of strategic planning within their management repertoire today. It is fair to ask, however, whether strategic planning is worth the resources needed to effectively provide governmental services? And what form it should take in the future? Part 2 of this commentary is devoted to answering those questions.

Author: Tom R. Hulst received an MA in public administration from Washington State University, was policy advisor to Governor Daniel Evans, administrator in the State Office of Public Instruction, and superintendent of Peninsula School District. He published “The Footpaths of Justice William O. Douglas” in 2004, been a long time ASPA member, and currently teaches political science at Tacoma Community College. 

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