Kingston Whig-Standard - - OPINION - Alan Gummo Kingston

Is strate­gic plan­ning worth coun­cil’s time?

Coun­cil de­serves our ap­pre­ci­a­tion for agree­ing, af­ter much tor­tured de­bate, to open its strate­gic plan­ning pro­ject to a de­gree of pub­lic in­volve­ment.

That said, the dust-up re­vealed a cul­ture that pushes back against con­struc­tive crit­i­cism, re­sists sug­ges­tions for con­tin­u­ous im­prove­ment and learn­ing by do­ing, and in­stead re­sponds with al­le­ga­tions of para­noia and mis­trust. It was also re­mark­able for the ab­sence of sim­ple management-sup­port tools such as a process map or pro­ject char­ter on which to ground the dis­cus­sion. These ob­ser­va­tions sug­gest that Item 1 on the pri­or­ity list should be a com­mit­ment to cul­ture change and en­hanced process management ca­pac­ity.

It seems that all mem­bers of coun­cil have bought into the pre­sumed value of strate­gic plan­ning. Some were ef­fu­sive in their sup­port.

The thing is that strate­gic plan­ning in the mu­nic­i­pal sec­tor has be­come a prob­lem­atic end in it­self. Some of these prob­lems were iden­ti­fied dur­ing the dust-up, and there are more. Some prob­lems can be cor­rected by bet­ter process de­sign, as sug­gested by the var­i­ous amend­ments that were turned down, but some can­not be de­signed out.

Strate­gic plan­ning ex­er­cises typ­i­cally re­sult in a wish list of things that would be nice to do. They are sel­dom ex­tended into dis­cus­sion of costs or ben­e­fits, or op­por­tu­nity costs, or the ca­pac­ity of the or­ga­ni­za­tion to de­liver. Most of these ex­er­cises are left un­funded, the re­quired in­vest­ment to be de­ter­mined later in the an­nual bud­get process. This dis­con­nect be­tween brain­storm­ing and bud­get cre­ates an al­most whim­si­cal di­men­sion to think­ing about how to spend po­ten­tially sig­nif­i­cant amounts of pub­lic money. The re­sult is a cy­cle of progress re­ports with no real progress to re­port.

What’s left be­hind in all this ac­tiv­ity is the no­tion that most of what coun­cils do, and must bud­get for, is driven by leg­isla­tive re­quire­ments from which there is no es­cape.

Learn­ing what these re­quire­ments are, bud­get­ing for them, and manag­ing for re­sults is the real re­spon­si­bil­ity of elected coun­cils. The strate­gic pri­or­i­ties about which they spend so much time talk­ing, and which their man­agers mon­i­tor by way of a reg­u­lar and time-con­sum­ing regime of progress re­ports, ef­fec­tively dis­tract them from this re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Un­for­tu­nately, as men­tioned at coun­cil, it’s often hard to de­ter­mine whether the strate­gic plan has ac­tu­ally de­liv­ered worth­while re­sults. Good management met­rics in the realm of demo­cratic gov­ern­ment are gen­er­ally hard to find. But they will be de­ter­mined by vot­ers at the next op­por­tu­nity.

Strate­gic plan­ning is a time waster and adds neg­li­gi­ble value. Maybe that’s why it has no statu­tory au­tho­riza­tion. But if coun­cil wants to do it, it should be done prop­erly, and its lim­i­ta­tions should be ac­knowl­edged.

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