Strategic planning is a comprehensive and systematic management tool designed to help organizations assess the current environment, anticipate and respond appropriately to changes in the environment, envision the future, increase effectiveness, develop commitment to the organization’s mission and achieve consensus on strategies and objectives for achieving that mission. Strategic planning is about influencing the future rather than simply preparing or adapting to it. The focus is on aligning organizational resources to bridge the gap between present conditions and the envisioned future. While it is important to balance the vision of community with available resources, the resources available should not inhibit the vision. The organization’s objectives for a strategic plan will help determine how the resources available can be tied to the future goals. An important complement to the strategic planning process is the preparation of a long-term financial plan, prepared concurrently with the strategic plan. A government should have a financial planning process that assesses the long-term financial implications of current and proposed policies, programs, and assumptions. A financial plan illustrates the likely financial outcomes of particular courses of actions.
Strategic planning for public organizations is based on the premise that leaders must be effective strategists if their organizations are to fulfill their missions, meet their mandates, and satisfy their constituents in the years head. Effective strategies are needed to cope with changed and changing circumstances, and leaders need to develop a coherent and defensible context for their decisions. National Advisory Committee on State and Local Budgeting (NACSLB) Recommended Practices provide a framework for financial management, which includes strategic planning.
GFOA recommends that all governmental entities use some form of strategic planning to provide a long-term perspective for service delivery and budgeting, thus establishing logical links between authorized spending and broad organizational goals. While there is not a single best approach to strategic planning, a sound strategic planning process will include the following key steps:
(1) Initiate the Strategic Planning Process. It is essential that the strategic plan be initiated and conducted under the authorization of the organization’s chief executive (CEO), either appointed or elected. Inclusion of other takeholders is critical, but a strategic plan that is not supported by the CEO has little chance of influencing an organization’s future.
(2) Prepare a Mission Statement. The mission statement should be a broad but clear statement of purpose for the entire organization. One of the critical uses of a mission statement is to help an organization decide what it should do and, importantly, what it should not be doing. The organization’s goals, strategies, programs and activities should logically cascade from the mission statement.
(3) Assess Environmental Factors. A thorough analysis of the government’s internal and external environment sets the stage for an effective strategic plan. A frequently used methodology for conducting an environmental assessment is a “SWOT” (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis. Strengths and weaknesses relate to the internal environment, while analysis of opportunities and threats focuses on the environment external to the organization.
Local, regional, national, and global factors affecting the community should be analyzed, including (a) economic and financial factors, (b) demographic trends, (c) legal or regulatory issues, (d) social and cultural trends, (e) physical (e.g., community development), (f) intergovernmental issues, and (g) technological change.
Also, a government should develop mechanisms to identify stakeholder concerns, needs, and priorities. Among the mechanisms that might be employed to gather such information are (a) public hearings, (b) surveys, (c) meetings of community leaders and citizens interest groups, (d) meetings with government employees, and (e) workshops for government administrative staffs and the legislative body.
(4) Identify Critical Issues. Once the environmental analysis has been completed, the next step is to use the resulting information to identify the most critical issues. Issue recognition should reflect stakeholder concerns, needs, and priorities as well as environmental factors affecting the community.
(5) Agree on a Small Number of Broad Goals. These written goals should address the most critical issues facing the community. It may be necessary to define priorities among goals to improve their usefulness in allocating resources.
(6) Develop Strategies to Achieve Broad Goals. Strategies relate to ways that the environment can be influenced (internal or external) to meet broad goals. A single strategy may relate to the achievement of more than one goal. There should be a relatively small number of specific strategies developed to help choose among services and activities to be emphasized. Use of flowcharts or strategy mapping is encouraged in the design of startegies. To optimize the success of these strategies, opportunities should be provided for input from those who will be affected.
(7) Create an Action Plan. The action plan describes how strategies will be implemented and includes activities and services to be performed, associated costs, designation of responsibilities, priority order, and time frame involved for the organization to reach its strategic goals. There are various long-range planning mechanisms available to enable organizations to clarify their vision and strategy and translate them into action.
(8) Develop Measurable Objectives. Objectives are specific, measurable results to be achieved. Objectives and their timelines are guidelines, not rules set in stone. Objectives should be expressed as quantities, or at least as verifiable statements, and ideally would include timeframes.
(9) Incorporate Performance Measures. Performance measures provide an important link between the goals, strategies, actions and objectives stated in the strategic plan and the programs and activities funded in the budget. Performance measures provide information on whether goals and objectives are being met.
(10) Obtain Approval of the Plan. Policymakers should formally approve the strategic plan so it can provide the context for policy decisions and budget decisions.
(11) Implement the Plan. Organization stakeholders should work together to implement the plan. Moreover, the strategic plan should drive the operating budget, the capital plan, and the government’s other financial planning efforts.
(12) Monitor Progress. Progress toward planned goals should be monitored at regular intervals. Organizations should develop a systematic review process to evaluate the extent to which strategic goals have been met.
(13) Reassess the Strategic Plan. Many external factors, such as the national or regional economy, demographic changes, statutory changes, legislation, mandates, and climate/environmental changes, may affect the environment and thus achievement of stated goals. To the extent that external events have long-range impacts, goals, strategies and actions may need to be adjusted to reflect these changes. New information about stakeholder needs or results may also require changes to the plan. It is desirable to minimize the number of adjustments to longer-term goals in order to maintain credibility. However, governments should conduct interim reviews every one to three years, and more comprehensive strategic planning processes every five to ten years, depending on how quickly conditions change. Performance measure results need to be reviewed more frequently than the strategic plan.
Key elements of this recommended practice are drawn from Recommended Budget Practices: A Framework for Improved State and Local Governmental Budgeting of the National Advisory Council on State and Local Budgeting and from GFOA’s recommended practice on “Performance Measurement: Using Performance Measurement for Decision Making – Updated Performance Measures”