From the Good Ideas File: Why most public sector strategies aren’t actually strategies at all

I don’t think of myself as a particular Anglophile, but the fact that the only general media article that I have ever seen that brings to light how crappy our public sector planning often is, came via a British newspaper…makes me wonder why no one ever calls that out in the US.

That sentence isn’t going to make it into the next Norton’s Anthology, but hopefully you get the idea.

We talk in the book, and in the discussion about the book going on over at PlannersWeb, that many of our plans of any type are way too vague, too wishy-washy, too unwilling to lay any groundwork to actually get anything done.  We say crap like “encourage more compact land use”  “facilitate entrepreneurial growth”  “support businesses that increase tax base.”   And even when, once in a while, we actually set some time or performance benchmarks, like “recruit 13 new businesses in one year” or “create a form-based code,” too often those get picked out of the air — because we know that we’re supposed to have benchmarks, but the mealymouth stuff we put in the plan doesn’t actually give us any sound basis for setting those goals.  Or — and this might be even more important — the process of developing it didn’t build the kind of broad support, the cross-party ownership, to get those hard decisions through the political processes.

I guess the small piece of encouragement in this is that, we in the US aren’t alone on this one.  As Phil Driver writes for the Guardian:

Faced with the challenge of making large cost savings while preserving core services, public sector staff have to make wise decisions about what to cut.

Ideally, they would re-read their strategies to guide their decisions. Yet when I ask UK public servants “what percentage of strategies have an impact?’ a typical response is “definitely less than 10% and probably less than 5%.”  How can wise spending decisions be made if strategies are so ineffective?

Almost every strategy I have reviewed fails in one of two ways:
1. Most strategies aren’t actually strategies
2. Most strategies aren’t validated

Even better, Phil gives us an excellent insight into why the strategies that we put into our plans so often prove so useless:

A strategy should guide what organisations actually do. What do organisations actually do? They create assets (infrastructure, products and services) and enable people (customers, citizens) to use those assets to create benefits for themselves. So a strategy should guide organisations to create assets effectively and efficiently, and guide organisations to help people to use those assets to their benefit.

The following ‘strategies’ were taken from various government strategy documents (and slightly disguised to protect the guilty). Are they really strategies?
• “Ensure low levels of obesity amongst school children”
• “Protect our coastlines”
• “Optimise the government’s return-on-investment from investing in … (insert your major investment of choice)”

Have you ever seen anyone “ensure” or “optimise” anything? No? That’s because these are not action verbs or strategies, they are merely aspirations masquerading as strategies.


And maybe even better, he lays bare one of the most common stupid things we do: make “if we build it they will come” assumptions:

Few public sector strategies convincingly connect inputs (projects) to outcomes and benefits. Such strategies completely miss the crucial importance of uses – only if people use a service will they benefit from it.

Organisations can only create or deliver results – they cannot deliver uses and benefits, such as low levels of obesity, or safe communities.

For example, a project to build a swimming pool won’t ensure the benefit of “healthy people”. Only when people use the swimming pool does the benefit of making people healthier become a possibility. Any strategy must understand what users will actually do and not just build assets (swimming pools, cycleways, roads, high speed rail links) and hope that citizens will continue to come and use them and pay enough for them to justify the investments. Decisions about what to cut must take this into consideration.

A critical issue here is to understand what people will actually do (uses) rather than understand what they want (results). A classic example is if you ask people “would you like a cycleway into the city?” Many people confidently say “yes”. However, ask them “how often will you use the cycleway?” and many will sheepishly admit that they will drive their cars into the city because everyone else will, hopefully but fancifully, be riding on the cycleway. If you don’t have compelling evidence that citizens will actually use a cycleway (even if incentives are offered) then don’t build one no matter how much people say they want one. The same principle applies to spending cuts decisions for many public services and investments.

I challenge you to search public sector strategies to find compelling evidence that desirable uses will actually happen. If this information is missing (which appears to be the case for many public sector strategies), how can you have any confidence that end-users will actually do what the strategy hopes they will do?

In our experience 15-25% of public sector strategies produce results which won’t be used – they are the wrong results! Savings can definitely be made by rigorously identifying projects that are producing such results and eliminating or modifying them so they produce useful results. Most importantly, cutting projects which don’t actually benefit citizens will have minimal impact on services.

Phil also gives some guidance on how to avoid these failures.  Read it and take it to heart. I sure will.

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