Find your northstar: how to build impactful public sector strategies

By on 23/03/2021 | Updated on 23/03/2021
The strategy can act as a “guiding northstar” that allows departments to hold their course despite the buffeting waves of annual budget rounds. Credit: Mike Setchell/Unsplash

At a recent PA Consulting webinar, senior UK public servants discussed the lessons they’ve learned from developing and embedding organisational strategies

The idea of making long-term plans in the current operating environment, rocked by the public health and economic effects of COVID-19 on top of the social and technological disruption that was already taking place, might seem optimistic. But building and maintaining sustainable long-term strategies will be essential as public sector organisations continue to address global social challenges, while ensuring value for money for tax-payers and staying ahead of the next strategic shock.

But what distinguishes a successful organisational strategy from “shelfware” (well-meaning initiatives that are not integrated into business processes)? And how can organisations avoid “zombie strategic portfolios” (entities that look as if they’re alive and functioning, but achieve very little)?

At a recent PA Consulting webinar, senior UK public servants discussed how to create and implement successful organisational strategies. And while they had plenty of colourful metaphors to describe failed attempts, their experience also allowed them to advise on the best methodologies to build strategies, the skills to nurture them to life, and the processes required to sustain and embed them in operational agendas.

Developing strategies

Public sector strategies should bridge the gap between “the top-level direction set by policy and the strategic transformation that inevitably needs to follow to deliver on the benefits that are required,” according to Alex Catlin, head of strategy consulting at PA Consulting.

Alex Catlin, Head of Strategy Consulting, PA Consulting

There are some useful principles to guide public sector organisations when they first embark on strategy-building, Catlin noted. Firstly, strategies should delineate what needs to be different; set out a “delivery roadmap” with the operational structures needed to realise it; and be able to identify, track and promote the value creation in day-to-day operations. Simplest of all, a strategy should “set out a relevant and inspiring view of the future, based on a robust set of diagnostic evidence and clear performance measures”.

Co-creating a strategy with internal and external stakeholders was considered important by the panel. Ellie Lusty, head of people strategy, design and insight at the People and Capability Group in the UK’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), defined co-creation as advancing from conventional stakeholder engagement to genuine collaborative development, and said it was able to “lift a strategy off the page.”

Her team engaged with two main groups: the “expert audience who deliver the changes that get you from where you are now to where you want to be” and the “the people who are impacted by the strategy, who want you want to feel inspired by that future and their role in it”.  She acknowledged less engagement with the “grassroots”, however – an area she hoped to improve on in future.

Co-creation is essential at Highways England as a small team of strategists needs to influence an entire agency, according to Adam Simmons its director for future roads investment strategy and government relations. “We’re a team of 15, supporting a company of over 4000,” he said. “…We work with the experts in the organisation to develop the evidence and the plans. I see this as a very facilitative role.”

Integrating strategies

Public sector strategy is uniquely challenging: organisations must create an outward-looking strategy that also integrates with wider departmental and political agendas and priorities. Lieutenant General Chris Tickell CBE, deputy chief of the general staff at the British Army, described “nesting” the Army’s strategy within that of the wider defence strategy and the government’s post-Brexit positioning.

Lieutenant General Chris Tickell CBE, Deputy Chief of the General StaffBritish Army

That contrasts, he says, with the Army’s former approach which was less integrated. “Because [the strategies] weren’t nested, we couldn’t really work out what the dependencies were between one level and another,” he said. “We’d muddled strategy with business… we were worrying about the minutiae of the day-to-day detail, and not focusing on the long term, three to five years effect.”

That long-term view gives organisations the foundations to be more agile. Lusty talked of the strategy as the “guiding northstar” that allows departments to hold their course despite the buffeting waves of annual budget rounds. And Simmons believes that Highways England’s five-year plan allowed the organisation to flex in response to the pandemic, while drawing sustained benefit from its supportive discipline.  

“Having that solid five-year plan gives that stability, a background against which one can be agile and react. We were able, during COVID, to actually crack on and continue to do a lot of delivery and operation of the network,” he said.

People power

All public sector organisations run on people power, and the participants highlighted the personalities and profiles best suited to strategy setting. For Tickell, the watchword is diversity of thought, although that presents a particular challenge in the army. “We all wear this uniform. And …. we’re all conditioned, having been in the organisation for some time. Civil service and contractor support is brilliant because they test us, and that diversity of thought is really important.”

For Catlin, it’s important to recruit people with the imagination to conceive of a different world, not just a slightly better version of the present – termed “bigger boat syndrome”.  “You need to look for people who’ve got a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset,” he said. “If you’re starting to look at the future, you really want to look at what’s going to be different, what’s going to change rather than an evolution of the present.”

While Lusty agreed that “great visionaries” and “asking-the-unthinkable-question disrupters” are great personalities to have when developing strategy, she also noted that you need people who can pull it all together. “I am the person who joins the dots. In the context of being a public sector strategist, that’s really important,” she said.

Ellie Lusty, Head of People Strategy, Design & Insight, People and Capability Group, Department for Work and Pensions, United Kingdom

And though people are central to developing strategy, you also need to engage those who are to deliver it. An audience member’s question on the recommended response to “middle management permafrost” – or chilly responses from middle leadership to change programmes or new approaches – prompted debate.

For Lusty, responses should be led by emotional intelligence. “We ask [middle leaders] to manage a huge amount of tension and pressure in the system. And we don’t give them much time to step back and … pause and reflect. If you really want to help people to change their mindsets, you have to put yourself in their shoes and ask, what’s going on for them? What’s their reality?”

Tickell argued that “permafrost” pejoratively characterises a fairly normal response to “change fatigue” and inevitable misalignments between organisation-level goals and team-level aspirations. With some managers inevitably engaging “through gritted teeth”, it is the job of the strategy team to make managers feel empowered and listened to, he said. “We engaged [middle leaders] at the start. And as we went through the re-iteration of objectives and deliverables, they were absolutely part of that discussion. So that they felt, and hopefully can see, some of their contributions both being recognised and then played back to them.”

Simmonds also agreed that perceived obstructiveness can be re-framed as emotional investment. “Very, very few people are intentionally obstructive. What may come across as reticence perhaps is, is really showing a passion and a commitment to what people believe and have experience in,” he said.

Testing and embedding

Once strategies exist, they can be stress-tested using other tools.

Wargaming, and causal modelling are really important,” said Catlin. “If we’ve got a system, and we understand the parameters of that system, can we test decisions to understand, for example, are there 80/20 gains here? Or are there unintended consequences that we can’t see? Having those two approaches and deploying them at the right time is really important.”

Lusty also used “scenario-planning” at the DWP to test the strategy against changing circumstances, such as election results or budget settlements. “How do we adjust the parameters year on year …  within a financial context and the external context in which we’re working? What do we do this year that takes us towards that end goal? We look at what the options might be, but we don’t use it consistently day-to-day.”

Once strategies are committed to paper – or an online portal – they need to be kept alive, an aspect stressed by Catlin. “We believe in developing a strong strategic centre, whether that’s virtual or physical, and a network of leaders to really live the strategy and lead from the front. It’s a really important step in converting a forward-looking strategy into a set of impactful activities that will drive benefit delivery.”

Adam Simmons, Director, Future RIS and Government Relations, Highways England, United Kingdom

At Highways England, Simmons stressed the need for clear dissemination of the strategy in written form within and beyond the organisation’s four walls. This helps people know you are working on meeting the strategic business plan and gives certainty to the supply chain and customers, he said.

Once a strategy is fully deployed, Catlin stressed the importance of supporting it by tracking trends via accurate, consistent data, and ensuring they are supported by adequate “corporate memory”, or “remembering what decisions have been taken and not unpicking them by taking them again, further down the track.”

As organisations world-wide start to move out of COVID-response mode, setting a clear strategic course, then aligning their organisations to steer by it, will be essential. The four participants’ pooled expertise cannot provide all the answers but hopefully offered some navigational aids – as well as that warning to steer clear of shelves and zombies.   

The webinar ‘Shape your future: creating and delivering impactful public sector strategy’ was held on 25 February 2021, and supported by PA Consulting. You can watch the whole event via our events page or below.

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