Strategic Planning in Practice

The rational model of the strategic public policy cycle has been criticised as overly linear, reductive and taking insufficient account of pre-existing policy and practice. Why do you think in many cases it continues to dominate strategic planning in practice?

The rational model of strategic public policy planning is pervasive in governmental operations. Yet, it seems to often be separated from the reality of the execution of the operations. This paper will compare rational planning to other models and inquire into the gap between theory and practice using the local municipality Dalton Township in Michigan, USA as a practical reference.

Actions and events occur through time, therefore it is reasonable to think of a process as occurring in a series of steps. For instance, five: initiation; formulation; implementation; evaluation; review. (Hague, Harrop, McCormick, 2016, pg 330) Or, it can be ten: define mission statement; formulate strategic goals; stakeholder analysis; situational analysis; identify strategic issues; identify possible courses of action; evaluate actions and choose; plan implementation, budgeting, and performance management; plan stakeholder management; monitoring and evaluation. (Joyce, 2015, pg 6) 

These process designs can be criticized as linear and reductive. They could and should all come with a caveat that notes that although it appears to be a linear process the actual application of the work will probably include dynamic reiterations both large and small, and although it appears simple the actual application will be significantly more complex even in small organizations.

Another criticism is that rational planning doesn't take into account pre-existing policy and practice. However, the people involved in the planning process will most likely bring both with them implicitly if not explicitly. "In practice, of course, all strategy-making walks on two feet, one deliberate, the other emergent. For just as purely deliberate strategy-making precludes learning, so purely emergent strategy-making precludes control. Pushed to the limit, neither approach makes much sense." (Mintzberg, 1989, pg 32)

There are stronger criticisms and deeper problems with the rational planning process. There are six underlying assumptions: "the environment can be understood, analysed and anticipated in its evolution; the change is intentional and the future of the organisation can be programmed; the organisations take the form of hierarchies, homogeneous groups that share and accept the same goals and that act as a whole in their implementation; the organisation identifies with its leaders, and its members with agents; analysis and reflection take place before any action; and the managers play a central role as planners and decision-makers." (Favoreu, Carassus, Maurel, 2015) Each of these an be criticized to a greater or lesser extent as incorrect to some degree. Some are obvious: organizations are not homogenous groups, not all people in organizations identify with the leaders, and action does not stop for analysis and reflection in most organizations. It is these discrepancies that separate theory from reality.

There are alternative models of policy-making. For instance: rational, incremental, and garbage-can. (Hague, Harrop, McCormick, 2016, pg 326) Or, rational planning, political approach, and collaborative strategic management. (Favoreu, Carassus, Maurel, 2015)

A good comparison to rational planning is the political approach. The political approach is about people forming power dynamics and coalitions in an effort to bargain and negotiate with other factions over disparate interests. (Favoreu, Carassus, Maurel, 2015) When power and authority are unclear as in factioned governments or governments with check and balance and separation of powers systems, the political approach is how things work. 

The parks in Dalton Township are a great example. There was a parks and recreation plan approved through a rational planning method in early 2019. Then, in late 2020 I was elected and took office as supervisor. Noticing that the township had financial troubles, I encouraged and convinced the new board to take a new approach. Instead of adding things, including a new park, a new nature area, and a disc golf course (Dalton Township, 2019) which would cost money and add to the list of things needing to be kept up with, which wasn't currently being achieved, we would instead focus on fulfilling the responsibilities and obligations that the township had previously acquired which includes: two cemeteries, four parks, a horse trail, a bike trail, a town sign, a township hall, two maintenance buildings, and a fire department. To this end I sold the disc golf equipment, park, nature area, and other properties. The land sale money went into the sewer debt. This means that new obligations weren't added, more attention and resources can flow to responsibilities that are already in place, and the financial concerns can be addressed. This was not formalized or codified as a grand strategy, and is therefore an example of emergent strategic change.

At first the board agreed with this, was even enthusiastic about it. However, over time disparities have grown as personally beneficial projects have come into focus for some of the trustees, most noticeable of late being a dog park, which would require capital while adding to the list of things needing to be maintained and therefore increasing the future ongoing maintenance obligations. Therefore this is an example of some of the potential issues with the political approach: ambiguity, lack of commitment, clandestine interests, unpreditability, and difficulty to control. (Favoreu, Carassus, Maurel, 2015)

This leads us back to why rational planning is used. Rational means "based on clear thought and reason." (Cambridge Dictionary, 2022) A government needs to be able to justify its actions to the public, being rational helps; the political approach is unstable, rational planning helps; and sometimes rational planning is legally required.

Assuming that some element of the political approach will be included in the process because of human nature, it's also desirable to include rational planning. In combining these it's important to keep the previously discussed caveats about the non-linear and non-reductive nature of the process in mind, while including stakeholders and building consensus. This, in the end, leads us to a mixed and more collaborative framework.

Reference List

Cambridge Dictionary (2022) "rational" accessed on 3 October 2022 at

Dalton Township (2019) Parks and Recreation Plan 2019-2023 accessed on 3 October 2022 at

Favoreu C, D Carassus & C Maurel (2015) ‘Strategic management in the public sector: a rational, political or collaborative approach? ’International Review of Administrative Sciences, 82 (3), 435–53.

Hague R, M Harrop and J McCormick (2016) Comparative Government and Politics.109th Edition. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Joyce P (2015) Strategic Management in the Public Sector. Oxford UK: Routledge.

Mintzberg, Henry (1989) Mintzberg on Management. New York, NY, USA: Free Press.



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