Strategic planning that works—evidence from the European public sector

Paul Joyce

Just over twenty years ago when I was observing experiments in the use of strategic planning and community planning in English local government I often wondered if it would prove to be a temporary management fad. There were at the time efforts by councils like Bradford Council to carry out planning with partners from all sectors. I saw councils like Ipswich Council trying to do community strategic planning and trying to engage and involve local people. There was leadership from councillors and officers at the tops of councils. I was really impressed at the time with their drive to innovate and serve the public better and often to use strategic planning as a tool to do this. But would enthusiasm for it last ten years?

Not only do local councils still use strategic thinking and planning but it has also been picked up at national level of government, with long-term strategic visions and strategies, all put to the service of reformed and improved public governance (which has been abundantly reported on by the OECD).

One of the most important things that academic researchers can do is to ensure that empirical research is carried out which really investigates what is actually happening in the public sector – what choices are made, and what actions are carried out – and what the consequences of them are. When this type of study is done it may be possible to have a serious examination of the usefulness of strategic planning for the public sector. It is therefore good that the journal Public Money & Management has just (in early 2020) published an issue that includes a series of empirical studies investigating the effectiveness of strategic planning in various European countries and in various parts of the public sector.

The editorial is by the four co-chairs of the Permanent Study Group on Strategic Management in Government, which was set up by the European Group for Public Administration (EGPA) in 2009. This study group has fostered research and discussion of the realities of public sector strategic planning with the intention of contributing towards a better understanding of how strategic planning works in practice and the causes of variations in its effectiveness.

In the editorial, I, along with my co-editors, drew attention to previously published research studies indicating individual public sector practitioners typically feel strategic planning has provided them with a range of benefits and studies assessing the contribution of strategic planning to public service performance. We also noted a recent meta-analysis by Bert George (Ghent University) that supported the value of strategic planning being formal as well as comprehensive.

It should not be assumed that we were arguing that strategic planning always succeeds and is always a perfect tool for public governance and for steering public service delivery. We do contend that, although strategic planning may rarely (if ever) be successful in respect of all the goals set, we do think there is evidence that it is quite successful. We also underline a view that Ewan Ferlie and Edoardo Ongaro, two UK based academics specialising in management in the public sector, have championed. This is the view that context matters. We say, “So strategic planning exists in many different shapes and forms—some effective and some less so, and one needs to think strategically about how strategic planning can be made most adequate for the context and issue at hand.”

In introducing the various studies in the issue, we were struck by a theme running through them. This was the theme of “alignment”. One that you would probably think of immediately is the alignment between strategic plans and the long-term visions and priorities set by elected politicians in the authorising structure. But we concluded the editorial by noting a set of alignments that we think are a good idea: “So, strategic planning needs to be aligned with its public governance context (i.e. strategic public governance alignment) and its networks (i.e. strategic network governance alignment), as well as being aligned with departmental plans (i.e. strategic vertical alignment), organisational structures (i.e. strategic horizontal alignment), and strategy implementation activities (i.e. strategic implementation alignment).” All this takes a lot of work to create and sustain. The big issue is, perhaps, how these alignments come into being – does strategic planning coordinate other things or adapt itself or both?


Paul Joyce is an Associate at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham. He is also a Visiting Professor in Public Management at Leeds Beckett University. He has a PhD from London School of Economics and Political Science and is currently writing a book on the execution of strategy in the public sector. His recent books include Strategic Management for Public Governance in Europe (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, with Anne Drumaux); Strategic Leadership in the Public Sector (Routledge, 2017, 2nd edition); and Strategic Management in the Public Sector (Routledge, 2015). In 2019 he became the Publications Director of the International Institute of Administrative Sciences, IIAS, headquartered in Brussels, Belgium.)

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