BY KEL WANG
How many plans or strategies does your municipality have? Don’t get me wrong. They are all necessary. We need a systematic approach in economic development, arts and culture, poverty, and many other issues that are complex and are much needed for the long-term prosperity and vibrancy of the community. So here is the million-dollar question: how can we ensure those plans and strategies are aligned and they collectively build a better community?
Each plan or strategy is effective on its own. They are specific to issues. But when your municipality has multiple plans or strategies in place, collectively they may have unintended consequences. Oftentimes, their development requires engagement both within and outside the administration, so they unintentionally compete for stakeholders’ attention and time. The implementation or action plans are developed separately from the original plans or strategies, further compounding the problem. Therefore, there is an ongoing need to monitor holistically and resolve conflicting implications and impacts as they can be hidden or unclear when plans or strategies are developed. This is further complicated when they rely on the same pool of funding and must compete for resources. When plans or strategies are approved at different times, those decisions are made in insolation. Over time, they become competing priorities and unintendedly force decision-makers to make uninformed, siloed, and contradicting decisions.
How can we address these issues? The answer is simple: you need gatekeepers on your plans and strategies. They may not be a subject matter expert in economic development, in arts and culture, or in eliminating poverty. But they are experts in facilitating a process that develops plans or strategies and oversees them collectively. In the private sector, this role is called chief strategy officer (CSO), a C-level executive responsible for the company's strategic planning process, forging synergies across the organization and establishing greater transparency and accountability for those carrying out the company’s strategy.
Private Sector Context
The role started to emerge in the best-run private sector companies in the early 2000s. Companies started to add CSOs to their management team due to the changes in the business landscape—complex organizational structures, rapid globalization, new regulations, the struggle to innovate—that make it even more difficult for CEOs to be on top of everything.1 According to the study, 84 percent of CSOs were internal hires and on average they had been with their companies for nearly eight years. A good CSO candidate is deeply trusted by the CEO; a master of multitasking; a jack of all trades, being able to navigate between strategies and operations; a doer, not just a thinker; an influencer communicating effectively at all levels; and also comfortable with ambiguity. While the role varies in each company, they share similar focuses: engender commitment to strategic plans; drive changes, particularly in the short term; and drive decision-making through all levels of the organization.
Similar roles have already emerged in some municipalities. Take the city of Edmonton as an example—the planning, performance, risk, and service improvement functions that are essential to providing oversight and alignment to plans and strategies are under one umbrella, reporting to a senior leader of the organization. This role was once a standing member of the administration’s executive team. The role adds value to plans and strategies in several ways:
- Through enforcing a consistent approach to creating and executing plans and strategies.
- Through bringing a unique lens to shared outcomes that identifies and activates synergies between plans and strategies.
- Through effective communication that influences all levels of the organization.
Change is constant and the need to address change in communities is ongoing. A proactive planning approach that brings an integrated lens to the community, the trends and research, and the organization allows you to manage individual issues well.2 It is important that this approach is applied consistently across issues throughout your organization. As a result those plans or strategies are aligned, collectively building a better community.
Our uptake in strategy has been growing. You rarely see a municipality that doesn't have a strategic plan or any sort of strategy. So here is the question to you as the manager: are you confident with the way your organization introduces multiple plans or strategies to the council and implements them in the community? A plan or a strategy on its own leads to better community engagement, employee engagement, and prioritization.3 But when you have multiple plans or strategies and they are not in sync, they may lead to over-engagement with the community and within the organization, confusion among stakeholders, or even competing priorities. It has been almost 40 years since strategic planning was introduced to the public sector as an innovation.4 Maybe it is time for us to “borrow” from the private sector again and to adopt the chief strategy officer role. Is your municipality ready for a chief strategy officer?
The author wishes to thank Vida Ramos for making this article as simple and clear as possible.
Endnotes and Resources
1. “The Chief Strategy Officer,” R. Timothy S. Breene, Paul Nunes, and Walter E. Shill, Harvard Business Review, October 2007.
2. “Proactive Planning: Where Art Meets Science,” K. Wang and M. Sambir, Public Management, February 2020.
3. “Strategic Planning Revisited,” K. Wang, Public Management, August 2019.
4. “State Agencies’ Experience with Strategic Planning,” Findings from a National Survey by F. Berry and B. Wechsler, Public Administration Review, March/April 1995.