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.)

Towards a model of sector-led improvement in UK local government

This post is based on Iain Taylor-Allen’s MSc dissertation, which he completed at INLOGOV earlier this year.

Iain Taylor-Allen

New policy is emerging from a political doctrine espousing the need to re-engage society in governance through the decentralisation of power, responsibility and accountability to the lowest possible level. In addition, fiscal reality serves to accelerate the desire for change. Whilst the new order is still emerging, the extent of reform to date has brought local government organisations front and centre.

Despite an exhaustive review spanning three decades, and covering both the public and private sector improvement literature, I could find little suitably developed theory on sector-led improvement pertinent to the current (or comparable) context of the UK local government sector. In response I designed and undertook an original piece of inductive research with the purpose of establishing an understanding of local government sector-led improvement in the UK, and identifying the key components of a sustainable model of sector-led improvement.

The research revealed a dynamic understanding of local government sector-led improvement, providing a provisional, high level definition of the phenomena focused on three key themes:

  • Mutual responsibility for the local government sector to support itself to improve and to share learning and best practice
  • Securing effective and value-for-money improvements to achieve better outcomes for service users
  • Ownership for improvement with a focus on local priorities.

Following further analysis three headline themes emerged, each comprising of key components identified by interviewees as critical to establishing a sustainable model of local government sector-led improvement:

  • Leadership (engagement and ownership)
  • Credibility  (assurance and improvement
  • Environment

Taken together the themes identified comprise the key components of what is referred to here as a provisional model of sustainable local government sector owned and led improvement, set in an environment that embraces the values identified to support the sector to realise improvement from within.

The model highlights the key components required for sector-led improvement to achieve the primary aim of positive citizen and service user outcomes, and be sustainable. These core components of leadership and credibility must exist within a reciprocally supportive, transparent and action focused environment characterised by a culture of mutual respect and ‘positive’ challenge from within the sector on behalf of the sector. Expressed in terms of establishing engagement as a basis for securing ownership for improvement from within the sector, effective leadership is a pre-requisite for developing and establishing the necessary level of credibility both within and outside the sector for the approach to be sustainable. Here, credibility is understood in terms of a cycle of assurance and improvement, focussed on robust performance base lining as a basis for securing the understanding and confidence to engage in improvement activity.

The findings highlight enthusiasm from within the sector to take on the challenge and responsibility of improvement, as well as drawing attention to the raft of potential benefits of a widespread adoption of the approach. Moreover, it provides researchers and practitioners alike a glimpse of the potential of a local government sector-led approach to improvement to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of local service provision, and hopefully the much needed stimulus for consistent, applied research to develop policy and practice to realise the potential benefits.


Iain Taylor-Allen is an Adult Social Care Performance Manager. He has a keen interest in public management – specifically focusing on leadership, organisational culture and transformation; sector-led approaches to improvement; and the use of qualitative and quantitative measures to drive service/ contract/ organisational performance.