There have been many strategic planning initiatives in the public services since the introduction of New Public Management (NPM) over the past several decades.
New Public Management, which is used to describe various reforms in the domain of the public sector, is a broad and complex term. The basic premise for adopting the NPM approach is to make managers accountable in connection with organizational performance and it allows an organization to focus on its goals leading towards achieving results.
It is through the process of strategic planning that both private and public-sector organizations develop and implement strategies. The adoption of strategic planning in the public sector was due to the introduction of a market-oriented approach from the private sector. The strategic planning approach focuses on long-term perspective, improved decision-making, greater organizational performance and enhanced responsiveness to change.
The business and market approach to the public sector brought with it a focus on strategic planning and management as a fundamental and important requirement. This has been implemented in different countries to varying degrees. The purpose of strategic planning is to help an organization get from where it is to where it wants to be.
Research studies generally show positive linkages between strategic planning and improved organizational performance. The literature on strategic planning reveals that it not only helps improve functioning, performance and effectiveness of an organization, but also provides a short-term and long-term sense of direction to the organization to achieve goals promoting cohesion and consistency in work.
However, in contrast to private-sector organizations, public-sector organizations are large and complex and also subject to internal and external environments. There are many stakeholders in a public-sector organization. Public service management has evolved in the political climate. The objectives are mostly driven and set by politicians who play a key role in fixing priorities for the government. This leaves little discretion for a public-sector organization than a private one to follow its strategic aims and objectives. This limited discretion may involve certain political, legal and regulatory constraints. Functionaries at the implementation level experience contradictions, tensions and sometimes failures in implementing policies.
Despite such limitations, strategic planning is considered an important part of a planning and strategy. It is widely used by various business organizations and private entities. It is a useful way to determine the position of an organization and how to attain goals and objectives. It helps improve performance and allows the management to step back, review and assess the progress and subsequently decide further course of action. It improves decision-making within the organization and helps identify strength and weakness as well. The management can also gauge opportunities and threats easily once they have a plan.
On the contrary, public-sector organizations are more complex and broad than a business organization due to different political, economic and social dynamics. In public-sector organizations there are multiple stakeholders with high levels of expectation. An approach based purely on rationality, rigid performance measurement and fixed boundaries may not be workable.
Fixed service boundaries have long been recognized as a potential problem in the public sector. It has been referred to as the ‘Silo’ perspective, whereby workers and managers remain in their own organization and only very occasionally begin to appreciate the world outside their own organization as well as profession and how other perspectives view them. Planning takes place in a real world where external forces are equally important as do internal decisions. Additionally, the challenges are further compounded by the repeated changes in leadership that are entwined in election cycles, deep-rooted hierarchies and regulations, and a culture of risk avoidance.
Similarly, there is an emerging debate about the nature of decision-making and relevance to the public sector. A key issue relates to the extent to which government decisions could be rational. Social scientists argue that the task of applying rationality is fraught with difficulties. There are differing accounts of rationality in public administration and management. Rationality is used differently in politics, economics and management literature.
Consequently, the bearing of these practices to the public sector is a matter of debate as it is not easy to move strategically due to complexity in the governance system involving both political and administrative spheres. There are many factors which need to be taken into account while applying strategic planning in a public-sector organization. These include the overall performance of an organization, critical issues and subsequent proposed actions including phase of implementation, opportunities, threats, key actors and their cultural values. Public service planning and strategy needs to be flexible and adaptable.
Furthermore, managing in a public environment is challenging because of its unpredictability. The storms and tides of the public service world, in particular given the difficult political and social context, limits the usefulness of strategic planning approaches. As a result, overly rigid approaches to performance management in public service can be highly dysfunctional in the public context and in the face of stark realities of the complex and unpredictable public policy world.
Planning and successful strategy making is one of the most demanding and time-consuming tasks in the public policy process. Planning processes that are overly formal and periodically institutionalized are in danger of being locked into wrong views of the world that cannot keep pace with the external events. Strategic planning in the public sector demands developed skills of leadership that strikes a balance between moving forward and listening and negotiating.
Going for strategic planning is not all about creating mission statements, metrics, and best meeting schedules. There is a need for substantial research on public-sector strategic planning. The new insights can yield accurately what works best, in which situations, and why.
Effective strategic planning requires proper integration of socio-economic, political and technological aspects into the planning process. It is about developing a system that adequately helps departments and agencies fix priorities, put enough resources for those priorities and then hold those who are responsible for accountability.
The writer is the secretary of the Department of Culture, Tourism & Archaeology, Balochistan.
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