Strategic impact for local government: 5 ways to ‘power up’ your council strategic planning process

by Zoe Pappas & Jess Cossens

Right Thinking

With the local government planning season fast approaching in Victoria, the 5 steps identified in this article provide councils with valuable insights to apply to their strategic planning process. By conducting a more thorough diagnostic review, testing your council strategy with strategic questions, meaningfully engaging with councillors, measuring what truly matters and aligning your organisation to deliver, councils can create a council plan that not only meets base legislative requirements, but truly brings strategic impact back into focus.

This article will be most relevant to council CEOs and executives responsible for delivering the council plan who are seeking to gain greater impact from their council planning process.

Right Lane is proud to be partnering with LGiU to share our experience and knowledge with the local government network through a series of published articles. You can find this LGiU published article (member only access) HERE and our second article ‘The value of a robust diagnosis: how to be better prepared for this year’s council planning process’ HERE.

LGiU Australia is a local government think tank, established by LGiU in partnership with SGS Economics and Planning. To register for LGiU Australia updates and access all content, contact SGS Principal and Partner Luke Nicholls.

See more of Right Lane’s local government experience HERE

From our discussions with councils, many executives find the 4-yearly planning process to be arduous, time consuming and somewhat disconnected from council operations. There is no shortage of big picture ideas, but whether it is feasible to achieve them all can present some challenges. In addition, the relative priority of new initiatives versus existing programmes of work can add to the complexity of discussions.

At Right Lane Consulting, we are strategy experts. We employ our distinctive ideas and processes to help clients we care about pursue their inspiring missions. Over the past decade, we have worked with many councils to help them address their most important challenges. Drawing on this experience we have identified 5 ideas to reinvigorate council’s strategic planning process to help achieve greater impact.

1. Conduct a more thorough diagnostic review

Often, councils begin their planning process by consulting with a broad range of stakeholders to understand their priorities, and reviewing the council’s existing service and operational plans. While the result provides useful detailed input, it may miss the broader trends that might impact the community and council over the 4-year planning horizon.

In our experience it is worth investing in a deep diagnosis at the beginning of a strategic planning process. A good diagnosis will:

  • frame the current situation to develop a shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities
  • replace the overwhelming complexity of reality with a simpler story that uncovers new perspectives and focuses attention on what matters most
  • identify one or more levers that can be pulled to create impact through the strategic plan.

A diagnostic review could include an internal analysis of the council’s performance against the last council plan, a review of the external forces impacting the council and the community, and exploring future-focused scenarios on how emerging trends and potential disruptive forces could change the external environment over the medium-term.

In our work we’ve found councillor and executive judgement is significantly strengthened by this analysis and attendant insight.

2. Test your strategy with strategic questions

Over many years of strategy consulting, we have developed a long list of strategic questions based on the work of great strategists like Roger Martin, A.G.Lafley and Chris Bradley. At the start of a new planning process we sometimes ask council executives and councillors to read through the list of questions and identify those that they don’t believe they can answer to their own satisfaction. Any blank stares and we know we’re onto something that might extend the council during their planning process. These questions often give pause for reflection. Does your council’s current strategy pass all of them? Will your planning process enable all of them to be adequately answered? The gaps you identify may help give focus to your efforts to power up your planning process.

Strategic questions we believe you need to be able to address:

  1. Why do we do what we do? What is the problem or opportunity with which we are engaging?
  2. Are we still progressing towards our stated community vision? What progress do we need to make over the next one, four and ten years?
  3. Who are our customers?
  4. What do we want our municipality to be famous for?
  5. Where are we best placed to add value to our community? Where could this value be better added by someone else?
  6. What capabilities do we need to be successful in the future?

3. Meaningfully engage with councillors

Engaging with councillors can pose a challenge for some council planning processes. There is a balancing act required to ensure their priorities are given adequate prominence, while not undermining the longer-term efforts that are already underway or ending up with a plan that has too many priorities that cannot be simultaneously addressed.

And while it may be tempting to pay lip service to the more divergent perspectives – often voiced by deep thinkers who harbour different views about what they believe council should be doing but isn’t – we would encourage you to hear them out. We’ve met many dissenters over the years who’ve challenged the dominant thinking, opening up the organisation to real, new opportunities. Seek out these voices and create safe spaces for them to share their dissenting views. They might extend or challenge the dominant thinking and open new strategic options for your council and community.

4. Measure what truly matters

To paraphrase Lenin, a strategy without measurement is blind; measurement that is not anchored to strategy is arbitrary. Thoughtful measurement is integral to strategy and planning. Through measurement we specify the impacts we want to have; we work out whether we are having the intended impacts; and we adjust course if things aren’t working out as we planned.

Although the task of setting strategic measures may appear straightforward, it can be treacherous and we encounter poorly defined measurement systems all too frequently. Consequently, when doing strategic reviews or working with clients on strategic plans we have found the following types of problems with their legacy measurement systems – the measures are not well defined; the measures are not measures but objectives, activities or deliverables; there are no targets set for the measures, or targets are set but without reference to baseline data; some of the measures are gauging something important and others are not; data for the measures is collected over widely divergent time horizons; top level measures are not properly cascaded to teams; or there is scant attention paid to performance monitoring.

We recommend councils take the time to develop a truly insightful and relevant scorecard, identifying a handful of important measures, and monitoring and reviewing them with a cadence that enables action. A driver tree approach can help, as it prioritises the measures in your strategy that create real value for the community and cascades them into actions and accountabilities.

Value driver trees outline the cause and effect relationships within your council. Once developed, the tree provides a ‘map’ of the key linkages between organisational activities and desired community outcomes. Value driver trees are a powerful tool to communicate focus areas and enable alignment of priorities for teams and individuals. People can see where their activities ‘fit’ and how they are contributing to value creation.

5. Align your organisation to deliver

It takes more than a well thought out and beautifully crafted council plan to affect real change. In truth, crafting a brilliant strategy is just the first step. The next challenge is delivering. In our experience many councils continue to work with an outdated operating model impeding effective strategy delivery.

The council plan is not always the best place to address these internal challenges given it is a public facing document, however, unless the operating model evolves with the council’s strategic priorities the chance of successfully delivering the council plan are low.

We have found that the best practice councils revitalise their operating model to respond to a new council plan and refocus efforts where they’re needed most:

  1. Put community needs and priorities, as articulated in the council plan, at the centre and design council operations around addressing those needs
  2. Stitch the organisational ‘seams’ in the best places to allow for effective operations and cross-departmental collaboration
  3. Develop and deliver the capabilities that matter most, recognising that there will be areas where ‘good enough’ will be sufficient
  4. Energise and align employees through principles for working together within and across teams while minimising unnecessary bureaucracy.

See more of Right Lane’s local government experience HERE


Adapted from Levy, M. (2019, May). Strategic impact: five ways to disrupt your strategic planning process. Right Lane Review.

Blenko, M., Garton, E., & Mottura, L. (2014). Winning operating models that convert strategy to results.

Bradley, C., Hirt, M., & Smit, S. (2011, January). Have you tested your strategy lately? McKinsey Quarterly.

Lafley, A.G., & Martin, R. (2012). Playing to win: How strategy really works. Harvard Business Review Press.

Levy, M. (2018, July). Setting strategic measures – four suggestions to make it worth the effort. Right Lane Review.

Levy, M., & Mills, J. (2019, December). Strategy execution: The great ‘business bake-off’. Right Lane Review.

We hope the ideas presented here have given you something new to think about. We would love the opportunity to discuss them with you in more detail. Get in touch today.

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