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Whither Strategic Planning in Public Administration? Part 2—Pathways Forward

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

By Tom R. Hulst
December 16, 2021

Planning is the first word in the well-worn public administration acronym, PODSCORB*, which describes what public administrators do. The abbreviation was used conspicuously by the Brownlow Committee in 1937—a presidential panel of experts that recommended comprehensive changes to the administrative structure of the United States government. In the years since, governments have grappled with the function of planning in a constitutional republic.

In Part 1 of this commentary, it was ascertained that strategic planning is widely used in governments in the United States and throughout the world. Most governmental and education agencies in Washington state employ strategic planning. Bert George and colleagues, in Does Strategic Planning Improve Organizational Performance? A Meta-Analysis, PAR, V.79, No. 6, 2019, write that, “Recent evidence has shown strategic planning’s widespread diffusion in the public sector—for example in Norwegian municipalities, U.S. transit agencies, and Canadian public service agencies.” Further that, [strategic planning], “Has been perceived favorably by policymakers and has become a core element of public management.” The December 2010 Supplement to Volume 70 of the PAR titled Looking into the Future of Public Administration featured 11 articles on strategic planning or strategic management.

Nevertheless, strategic planning—in both government and business— has received criticism from many quarters. Aaron Wildavsky, author of The Politics of the Budgetary Process, famously said, “PPBS failed everywhere and at all times.” Richard Rose wrote in Implementation and Evaporation: The Record of MBO, PAR, V.37, No.1, 1977, about, “The limitations of applying management techniques that do not take into account government and its distinctive institutional character. Evidence shows that, like PPBS, [MBO] has evaporated.” Harvey Mintzberg opined in an influential article titled The Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning, HBR, V. 72, No. 1, that, “While certainly not dead, strategic planning has long since fallen from its pedestal. . . strategic planning is not strategic thinking. Indeed, strategic planning often spoils strategic thinking, causing managers to confuse real vision with the manipulation of numbers. And this confusion lies at the heart of the issue: the most successful strategies are visions, not plans.” Echoing Mintzberg, Roger Martin wrote in The Big Lie of Strategic Planning, HBR, V. 92, 3-8, that, “Virtually every time the word ‘strategy’ is used, it is paired with some form of the word ‘plan,’ as in the process of ‘strategic planning’ or the resulting ‘strategic plan.’ The subtle slide from strategy to planning occurs because planning is a thoroughly doable and comfortable exercise.”

In the current data rich environment, traditional strategic planning in the public sector has been viewed by some as too hierarchical, inbred and rigid. Melanie P. Cohen argued in Practitioner’s Perspective—Have We Missed the Boat on Planning? PAR, Supplement to Volume 70, 2010, that, “Strategic planning can no longer be the work of a few in a strategic planning office.” In the same PAR volume, Melissa M. Stone wrote in Toward a More Heroic View of Strategic Management, “How will a systemic arrangement of elements help solve our problems [with planning]? It can’t. It won’t. And it hasn’t. So, what do we need to do? We must integrate strategic thinking at every level throughout the organization.”

Rebecca Hendrick counseled in What is wrong with Advice on Strategic Planning? PAR, Supplement to V. 70 that, “One line of inquiry might be to conduct a meta-study of strategic planning in government using the case studies that exist.” Fortuitously, that advice was heeded nine years later. In 2019 Bert George, Richard Walker and Joost Monster penned Does Strategic Planning Improve Organizational Performance? A Meta-Analysis, PAR, V.79, No. 6. In their analysis of 31 empirical studies with a mean sample size of 278 organizations the authors found that strategic planning:

  • “[H]as a positive, moderate and significant impact on organizational performance in the private and public sectors, across international settings.
  • Should be part of the standard managerial approaches to contemporary organizations and contradicts many of the critiques of strategic planning.
  • Is particularly potent in enhancing organizational effectiveness (i.e., whether organizations successfully achieve their goals), but it should not necessarily be undertaken in the hope of achieving efficiency gains.”

What have we learned from the literature in the past decades? Not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, perhaps? Leaders should encourage strategic thinking as well as support formal planning frameworks. Strategic planning and management should be nimbler. More agile planning cannot be captured in a mere printed document. Planning documents need not be huge tomes. Planning and implementation processes should be better integrated. The process should engage a broad base of constituents and not be limited to merely top-level staff. Data-driven approaches should be employed to achieve integrity in the results; and emphasis could focus more on organizational effectiveness than operational efficiencies. Steven Putansu observes in Politics and Policy Knowledge in Federal Education, Palgrave McMillan, 2020, that, “Agreement on goals and ability to observe process and outcomes increases use of policy knowledge.” Along with the foregoing this should provide the field of public administration the basis for sustaining strategic planning, mindful management, and visionary thinking in the future.

*The complete list of the components of the acronym are: Planning, Organizing, Staffing, Directing, Co-Ordinating, Reporting and Budgeting.

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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