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In February 2022, federal agencies are expected to publish new strategic plans that lay out their goals and priorities and position them to accomplish their missions. The plans must identify how those goals and priorities will be achieved and specify how progress will be measured along the way.
The strategic planning requirement grew out of the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993, enacted to boost the effectiveness of the federal government. Congress strengthened the law in 2010, requiring agencies to release their strategic plans one year after a presidential inauguration and conduct more robust reviews of their progress. Strategic planning is also an established best practice in other sectors.
When done well, it can help federal agencies develop an ambitious vision for the future—and a roadmap to get there—that inspires and guides agency employees and delivers results for the people of this country. With so many challenges facing our country, it is a valuable opportunity for agencies to map out the major goals and objectives that will help them deliver on their missions, and plan for how tomorrow’s work will get done.
At times, agencies do not take full advantage of the strategic planning process and end up dedicating resources to creating plans that go unused.
“There’s an old joke that the dustiest book on any manager’s bookshelf is the strategic plan because it’s only touched twice,” said Chris Mihm, former managing director at the Government Accountability Office. “Once when it’s put on the shelf, and again when it’s taken down and replaced with the new edition.”
To help agencies develop bold and useful strategic plans for fiscal years 2022–2026, the Partnership for Public Service and Grant Thornton Public Sector hosted three workshops with strategic planners from across the federal government between April and June 2021. The sessions offered participants an opportunity to share best practices for creating plans agencies find useful; learn how to incorporate into the plans evidence about what works; and devise ways to implement plans successfully once completed.
This report presents the findings from those workshops and supplemental interviews we conducted with federal strategic planning teams. It highlights practical steps strategic planners can take to create plans that:
The report also provides tips for turning those plans into results by:
Federal statute requires a strategic plan to cover the breadth of an agency’s mission, but it should not be so broad that it fails to provide the leadership and the staff with clear direction. An effective strategic plan identifies an agency’s top priorities, providing guidance on where to direct limited resources, rather than encompassing everything an agency does.
“Strategic planning is about framing the fundamental decisions an agency makes,” said Chris Mihm, formerly GAO’s managing director.
“There must be trade-offs—ambitions that fall off the table because of resource or other constraints. Trade-offs are a sign of how serious the thinking is behind the plan.”
Lenora Stiles, director of the Office of Strategic Planning and Performance Improvement and deputy performance improvement officer at the Department of the Treasury echoed Mihm’s sentiment. “To be useful, the plan must prioritize,” she said.
“Including everything a department does will not tell people what to focus on and where to allocate resources. It’s about picking a set of priorities—the major things you want to accomplish over the next four years—and determining what must happen to achieve them. Creating plans that include everything is where federal strategic planning often falls short.”
Treasury’s fiscal 2022-2026 strategic plan will focus one goal on operational improvements the department seeks. These include improving the customer experience, making more effective use of data, hiring and retaining a diverse and inclusive workforce, and reimagining how work gets done as the COVID-19 pandemic subsides and employees return to the office. It is a good example of a plan that covers the entire agency—every component can strive to improve operational performance regardless of mission—while also being focused enough to provide helpful strategic direction.
The best strategic plans address current opportunities and challenges but are also forward-looking and set agencies up to succeed over the subsequent four years. Striking that balance can be challenging for strategic planning teams, according to Stephen Sanford, acting managing director of strategic planning at GAO.
“There is always a risk of focusing too much on the tactical, chasing immediate emergencies and priorities. But the planning cycle spans several years, so thinking about what the world might look like over that time and creating a plan that positions your agency to thrive is really important.”
Strategic planning teams should ask a wide range of stakeholders what they believe the plan should prioritize. These stakeholders include an agency’s political and career leaders, rank-and-file employees, customers, staff members at peer agencies and members of Congress.
Groups that know an agency’s work and mission well can provide valuable insights that help strategic planners create better plans. Asking stakeholders for their ideas and incorporating them into the plan can also foster buy-in and make it more likely the strategic plan will be implemented successfully—since stakeholders are also responsible for turning the plan into results.
“Politically, the thing that kills you first and deepest is if someone can say, ‘If only you had consulted me. If only you had talked to me. No one asked for my opinion,’” Mihm warned.
The goals and objectives in a strategic plan should reflect the political leadership’s vision for the agency, so it is crucial for strategic planners to consult with the incoming team. Because it is those political leaders who set the agency’s broad direction, failure to consult with them can result in a poorly aligned plan that is less likely to be used. However, it can be challenging to get meetings with busy political leaders who are new to the agency, according to some strategic planners who attended our workshop series. Additionally, if an agency’s leadership team is slow to be nominated and confirmed, strategic planning teams risk falling behind schedule.
The strategic planning team at the Department of Justice briefs new political leaders about the planning process as soon as possible, sharing information about what must be done and how a robust strategic plan can help advance their agenda. While the planning team tries to schedule meetings early with political leaders to learn about their goals and objectives, they recognize that new leaders are “drinking out of a firehose” and may not always prioritize strategic planning, according to Tennille Nance, the department’s senior performance advisor.
To keep strategic planning on leadership’s radar and learn about their priorities, the planning team engages leaders in creative ways.
“You need to be opportunistic and incorporate strategic planning into every interaction,” Nance said.
“For example, if you’re talking to leadership about the budget, find a way to bring strategic planning into the conversation. There’s so much going on, but if leadership constantly hears strategic planning coming up, they are more likely to realize, ‘Okay, this is important.’”
To get a head start on its plan, Treasury’s strategic planning team anticipates what the political leadership’s priorities will be long before those leaders come on board.
In the months leading up to a presidential election, the planning team monitors the platforms of presidential candidates from the major parties, looking for clues about what priorities might be relevant to the department. Once a winner is declared and a nominee is named to lead the department, the planning team pays close attention to that person’s confirmation testimony.
“We really use the confirmation hearing as our North Star before we have people in the building who we can talk to,” Stiles said.
Strategic planners at Treasury also meet with the department’s career executives before the new political team arrives. These career leaders span administrations and oversee the department’s most important programs. The planning team asks career leaders about their priorities, and the opportunities and challenges they anticipate for the department over the ensuing four years.
The strategic planning team’s advance work helps it hit the ground running as soon as the political leadership is in place. Planning team members take what they learned from career leaders and convey that information to political leaders. Planning team members also share the research they conducted on what the new leadership team’s priorities might be, to confirm that the research is correct. From there, the planning team works with the political and career leadership to refine the goals and priorities that will be reflected in the department’s strategic plan.
Some people involved in the strategic planning process may favor a top-down approach, relying on a small number of voices to inform the plan. But an agency’s employees know its programs, customers, opportunities and challenges, often from perspectives agency leaders do not have, so it is wise to include them in the strategic planning process. And because rank-and-file employees will be asked to do the work spelled out in the plan, it is crucial to have their buy-in.
Once leaders at Justice establish their goals and objectives, the department begins a collaborative process which includes the strategic planning team convening working groups to help build out the plan.
Working groups are staffed by subject matter experts from across the department, and each group focuses on a goal or objective that will appear in the strategic plan. For example, if the plan includes an objective to reduce violent crime, its working group might include staff members from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Members of the working groups complete tasks such as determining the best strategies to achieve the goals and objectives, pinpointing risks that might prevent success, developing key performance indicators to track progress and identifying gaps in the department’s knowledge that, if filled, would help improve its policies and programs. The planning team regularly updates agency leadership on the working groups’ outputs to ensure they are in alignment with leadership’s vision.
Convening working groups requires the strategic planning team to do a lot of preparation, but it is an important part of the process. “It’s not easy, but it’s worth it,” said Nance, one of Justice’s strategic planning leads. “Because our department is so large, many components don’t get the chance to regularly sit down and talk to each other about the opportunities and challenges that cut across the department. The working groups provide space to do that.”
Working group participants are experts in their fields but may not know much about strategic planning, so it is important to educate them about the purpose of the plan and how to build it so it complies with federal requirements, according to Nance. The department’s strategic planning team found that providing working group members with templates to complete and examples to follow is an effective approach.
Once a draft of the strategic plan is complete, the department shares it with all agency employees and invites their feedback.
Federal agencies exist to serve the people of this country, so it is important to consider the public’s priorities when developing strategic plans. Some agencies have invited customer feedback through Federal Register notices and even Twitter campaigns. Other agencies have had better luck taking an indirect route, engaging the organizations and associations that represent their public customers, according to strategic planners we interviewed.
At the National Science Foundation, the strategic planning team asked a host of academic and research organizations to weigh in on what the agency should try to accomplish over the next four years. The team also drew heavily on feedback from the National Science Board, a body that works alongside NSF’s director to provide leadership and oversight for the agency. NSB members include some of the country’s top researchers and senior leaders in academia and the private sector.
As part of its strategic planning process, the Department of Veterans Affairs interviewed nine Veterans Service Organizations to learn how it could serve veterans better and used the information to shape its goals, objectives and strategies.1 One takeaway was that veterans living overseas could use more support. Another was that many disabled veterans are heavily dependent on the department for adequate care. This insight convinced the planning team that high-quality care for disabled veterans should be a top priority in the strategic plan.
Asking program offices to gather input for the strategic plan can also be effective, as these offices often work closely with an agency’s customers and know them best. At the Small Business Administration, program offices consult with local partners in communities throughout the country for feedback on the agency’s future direction.
Few challenges that the federal government tackles fall neatly within the jurisdiction of a single agency. For example, while the Department of Labor plays a big role in combatting unemployment, the departments of Education, Health and Human Services and other agencies administer programs with the same goal. Similarly, the departments of Homeland Security, State, Defense and others play vital roles in the national security realm. Agencies with overlapping missions should consult with one another when developing their goals, objectives and strategies for achieving them. Doing so can yield valuable new insights, but it is an underused practice, according to the experts we interviewed.
The VA’s strategic planning team interviewed senior leaders at several partner agencies, including the departments of Defense, Labor, Education, Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, and others. Team members asked leaders at partner agencies about their vision for the VA and how the agencies could work together more effectively in the future to better serve veterans.
To ensure that the discussions were candid, the VA team promised confidentiality. The team also spent considerable effort identifying the best people to interview, targeting senior leaders who knew the relationship between their agencies and the VA well—what it was like in the past, its current state and what it could become in the future.
“Connecting with the right people at other agencies was a challenge,” said Theresa Blackledge, an analyst and strategic planning lead at the VA. “You really have to work your connections. We put as much thought into identifying the right people to talk to as the questions we were going to ask them.”
The Treasury planning team engages its counterparts at agencies with overlapping goals—such as economic recovery—to make sure its strategies for achieving them are complementary. Importantly, the department includes program managers in the meetings because they make the decisions about how programs are executed. Meetings also provide an opportunity for Treasury to learn about creative ways peer agencies measure success.
When drafting their strategic plans, agencies are statutorily required to consult with Congress.2 It is an opportunity for agencies, and members of the congressional committees who oversee their work, to align on a strategic vision and develop a shared understanding about the resources necessary to achieve it.
To help ensure the consultation is useful, advance work is necessary, according to a GAO report.3 Agencies and their congressional partners should have a preliminary conversation about what they wish to discuss and hope to achieve from the consultation, and relevant materials—such as an early draft of the strategic plan—should be shared beforehand, the report states. It is also important to include the right people in the consultation, such as agency staff members who can answer questions about key programs, and congressional staffers who are highly knowledgeable about an agency’s work and understand the purpose of strategic planning.4
While there are many ways to solicit feedback from Congress, working with members “early and often” is key, GAO’s Mihm said.
“Congress does not like when something is dumped on them, marked ‘Draft—Not for Distribution,’ that shows it is clearly a done deal and the ‘consultation’ was merely to tick a box. ‘Hey, we’re releasing this next week, let us know if you have any comments.’ That sort of thing. That’s not consultation,” he said.
The world can change drastically during the four-year lifespan of a strategic plan. For plans to be most useful, strategic planners must revise and update them as needed when an agency’s operating environment changes. Treating the plan as a living document and keeping it current helps ensure it remains a valuable guide for agency leaders and the staff.
“If you don’t update your plan when things change, people will stop looking at it. They’ll stop using it,” said Treasury’s Stiles.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, her department suddenly had to administer relief programs worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Even though it was the final year of the Trump administration, Treasury updated its strategic plan to reflect its relief and recovery work.
“Had we not done so, the plan would have been irrelevant,” Stiles said. “It also gave credence to what people were working so hard on.”
As agencies develop their strategic plans for fiscal 2022-2026, they are required by the Office of Management and Budget to align their goals and objectives with the Biden administration’s top priorities, which include economic strength and revitalization, equity, climate change and recovery from the pandemic. Since the administration has designated these as today’s most important issues, embracing the requirement to align agency goals with administration priorities is another way to keep plans current and relevant—as the activities of these agencies demonstrate:
The federal government has taken significant strides to become more data-driven and evidence-based since agencies last developed their strategic plans in 2017. The effort hit a high-water mark in 2019 when the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act was signed into law, institutionalizing the role evidence should play in informing decision-making about policies and programs. Recent guidance from OMB reminded agencies that they must go beyond merely complying with the law and use it to build a culture that embraces learning.6
As agencies develop and implement their fiscal 2022-2026 strategic plans, they should answer the call and draw heavily on evidence to inform the selection of their goals, objectives and strategies. Sometimes that means seeking out evidence that has already been gathered. Other times, agencies will have to build new evidence themselves.
Evidence can help agencies choose the best goals and objectives to advance their mission and develop top-notch strategies for achieving them. It can also help agencies determine whether their approach is working or needs to be revised.
The Evidence Act requires agencies to include a “learning agenda” in their strategic plans. An agency’s learning agenda lists its highest-priority research questions and specifies how they might be answered—for example, by analyzing data or evaluating the effectiveness of a program. The learning agenda is intended to be developed alongside the strategic plan. Answering the questions in it fills critical gaps in an agency’s knowledge and provides insight into how the agency could improve its programs and better fulfill its mission.
When choosing questions to include in their learning agenda, agencies should refer to the goals and objectives in their strategic plans. Alignment between the learning agenda and the plan’s goals and objectives ensures the most pressing questions are being asked and, hopefully, answered.
“As agencies identify their goals and objectives, they should ask themselves what questions remain about how to achieve them, and how those questions could be answered,” said Diana Epstein, evidence team lead at OMB and a presenter at our workshop series. “The learning agenda is your tool to get there.”
To fully integrate evidence into the strategic planning process, it is important for strategic planning teams, research and evaluation staff members, and program managers to work together closely. Each group has specialized knowledge and a unique perspective, and close collaboration can help ensure the best available evidence is being used to guide an agency’s work.
At the Small Business Administration, program managers work hand-in-hand with the planning team to identify evidence-based strategies for strengthening their programs, and to brainstorm questions that, if answered, could improve program delivery.
“For many programs, creating learning agendas is a new exercise,” said Marjorie Rudinsky, director of SBA’s Performance Management Division. “I liken it to playing ‘Jeopardy,’ where you don’t give the answer but ask the question. It requires additional forethought, but the more we incorporate evidence into the strategic planning process, the more muscle memory people will develop.”
At the National Science Foundation, strategic planners and evaluation experts collaborate to ensure the plan and the learning agenda closely complement each other.
“We’re really trying to develop a virtuous cycle where the strategic plan’s goals drive the questions in the learning agenda, and the questions in the learning agenda drive the [program] evaluations we fund, the strategic reviews we undertake, and the performance measures we choose,” said Janis Coughlin-Piester, deputy performance improvement officer at NSF.
At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the strategic planning, program, and research and evaluation offices have cultivated a relationship based on strong communication and mutual respect.
The department’s leadership set the expectation long ago that the offices collaborate closely with one another and their partners on the program teams, according to Calvin Johnson, deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Research, Evaluation and Monitoring, and Max Bing-Grant, acting director of the Strategic Planning and Performance Division. While leadership set the tone initially, collaboration has become a part of the culture over time, according to Johnson and Bing-Grant, both presenters at our workshop series.
They agreed that a key to successful relationships is understanding what partners need and focusing on how to support them.
“We wouldn’t think of doing an evaluation that informs our strategic plan without first consulting the Strategic Planning and Performance Division and our program offices,” Johnson said.
It is also important to build and maintain rapport. “It’s not uncommon for me to be up in their suite, walking the halls, talking to them, even talking about things unrelated to work,” Johnson said.
“And it’s not uncommon for folks from [the Strategic Planning and Performance Division] to be down in our suite, genuinely curious about what we’re working on and trying to learn from us.”
Once agencies have cleared the last hurdle and published their fiscal 2022-2026 strategic plans online in February 2022, they must quickly begin to implement them. Lack of awareness about what is in the plan, inertia and resistance to change can all stand in the way.
No matter how strong the plan, it will only improve the work of government if it is implemented effectively. “Writing the strategic plan is a sprint to the starting line of a marathon,” said Treasury’s Stiles.
The strategic plan can inform and energize employees, but only if agency leaders publicize it throughout the workforce, according to workshop participants and the specialists we interviewed. That includes communicating the strategy to the staff; reminding them how their work contributes to the outcomes the agency is trying to achieve, however junior they may be; and updating staff members on the agency’s progress toward meeting its goals and objectives while celebrating success along the way.
According to employee survey data, government needs to improve how it communicates about strategy. In 2020, 68% of Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey respondents agreed that their managers communicate the goals of the organization.7 In 2019, the last year the question appeared on the survey, 64% of respondents agreed that managers review and evaluate their organization’s progress toward meeting its goals and objectives.8 And in a 2017 survey of federal managers, just 46% agreed to a “great” or “very great” extent that employees in their agency receive positive recognition for helping the agency accomplish its strategic goals.9
To raise awareness about the strategic plan, some agencies hang posters in common areas around the office. In a remote work environment, leaders might record short videos instead. One workshop participant encouraged leaders to work with the public affairs team to develop a robust communications strategy around the plan’s release. At the National Science Foundation, the strategic planning team tries to structure the plan in an accessible way, using one word to describe each goal, followed by a longer summary.
“A lot of staff told us they remembered NSF used to have a strategic plan that was about ‘people, tools and ideas,’ and they knew what those terms meant and understood what fit under each one. A pithy presentation can help staff glance at the plan and get the high notes,” said NSF’s Coughlin-Piester.
Gary Steinberg, a former senior executive and participant in our workshop series, required his leadership team to convene their staff quarterly and review the organization’s progress toward implementing the strategic plan. He also delivered an annual “state of the agency” address, during which he talked about the strategic plan, the priorities for the year and how the organization had performed.
“It was an opportunity to celebrate success and tell our staff, ‘You made this happen. It was your work on the front lines. You did a great job and made a difference in the lives of the people we serve by carrying out our mission each and every day,’” Steinberg said.
Agencies should use the strategic plan to drive decision-making for key processes, including budgeting, workforce management, enterprise risk management and performance management. Doing so ensures the processes are advancing the strategic plan’s goals and objectives. It is also a good way for agency leaders to signal their commitment to the plan.
At the National Science Foundation, senior executives are required to link their performance goals to the agency’s strategic plan, specifying how each performance goal relates to the plan. Some executives require their direct reports to do the same thing. At Treasury, budget requests are expected to include an explanation about how the money will advance the strategic plan’s objectives.
Agencies are required to evaluate their progress toward implementing the strategic plan and share their assessment with OMB annually. Additionally, agencies must review progress toward achieving their priority goals—a subset of goals they are expected to accomplish within two years—at least quarterly.
While these reviews are a good opportunity to pause and take stock, top-performing agencies do much more. They monitor and report on their progress year-round and use the best available evidence to determine if their strategies are working. If not, they change course. They also demand accountability from staff members who are responsible for turning the plan into results.
This year, Treasury’s plan will assign one person to be responsible for each strategic objective. The plan will also specify who these leads should work with to accomplish the objective, which can include department bureaus and offices or stakeholders outside the agency.
“If you don’t identify a lead, it’s harder to hold people accountable for delivering results. And if you don’t identify who the lead should work with, they might not know what resources they have at their disposal,” Stiles said.
Regular performance reviews with agency leadership are another way to promote accountability for carrying out the strategic plan. At the Department of Veterans Affairs, the senior leadership team gathers routinely to update colleagues on key performance indicators related to the plan.
“The practice was designed to hold people accountable, but it is also an opportunity to celebrate success and have a candid discussion about problems and solutions as a leadership team,” Steinberg said. “Having that focus and that regular dialogue really kept up the pressure to make progress on the goals and objectives in the strategic plan.”
Many of this country’s proudest accomplishments were the work of government, according to Pam Coleman, associate director of performance and personnel management at OMB. Coleman, who delivered keynote remarks to kick off our workshop series, spoke about the unique role government can play in tackling our biggest challenges in the years ahead.
She stressed to strategic planning teams how important their work is in positioning our country to thrive in the future, urging them to “meet the moment.”
As the country confronts a host of domestic and foreign policy challenges, including mitigating or reversing the economic damage caused by COVID-19 and coming out stronger on the other side, meeting the moment has never been more important.
If agencies are successful at taking the practical steps highlighted in this report to build bold strategic plans and implement them effectively, the people of this nation will win.
Loren DeJonge Schulman
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