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This brief provides an overview of the strategic planning process, an essential first step in the development of a results-based accountability system.

About This Series

These short reports are designed to frame and contribute to the public debate on evaluation, accountability, and organizational learning.


I. Strategic Planning Process Defined

Successful RBA efforts involve strategic planning, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation (which will ultimately provide data that will be used in future planning and implementation efforts). Strategic planning, an essential first step in the development of a results-based accountability system, is defined as the process of addressing the following questions:

  • Where are we?
  • What do we have to work with?
  • Where do we want to be?
  • How do we get there?

This process is undertaken by states, organizations, programs, and sub-programs.

The steps involved in developing a strategic plan are described below. Although this process appears systematic and rational, it is often iterative and evolves substantially over time. Further, it is subject to political pressure and will be modified accordingly. Some strategic planning efforts may not include all the steps described. The elements and process described in the next section should be modified depending on context.

II. Components of a Strategic Planning Process

The first step in the strategic planning process is to address the questions “Where are we?” and “What do we have to work with?” Examination of recent history and changing contexts (both internal and external) of the state, organization, program, or sub-program allows participants to assess current positions. Answering the question of what we have to work with involves consideration of strengths and weaknesses and determination of how to capitalize on strengths.

The next step in the process is answering “Where do we want to be?” As the articulated vision stems from the values of those involved in the process, it is essential that this step involve all of those who will have a stake in the achieving the vision. For agencies and programs, the vision is then translated into a mission statement: a broad, comprehensive statement of the purpose of the agency or program. States and communities may not have mission statements, as they may have multiple purposes. If unable to design mission statements that can encompass multiple divergent goals, planners should articulate several separate mission statements reflecting different goals.

The next step in the planning process is the articulation of goals. Desired long-range conditions of well-being for the state, community, agency, or program, goals indicate the intended future direction of the state, agency, or program. An example of a state goal is that all children and families be healthy by the year 2010.

After articulating the vision and determining goals, planners must address means of reaching their goals. This step involves articulating strategies for achieving results. Strategies should reflect the strengths and weaknesses of the entity engaged in the planning. For example, a very small office should recognize that its size could be both a weakness and a strength. The size would limit it to strategies that do not require large human resource commitments, but would allow it to use strategies requiring rapid dissemination of information throughout the organization. Recognition of relative strengths and weaknesses is helpful in identifying promising strategies.

RBA system development must include consideration of methods of goal measurement. Some strategic planning processes include this step; others leave this question to be addressed by a separate process. Addressing goal measurement involves articulation of objectives, indicators, and benchmarks. Objectives are the short-term conditions needed to achieve desired conditions of well-being for children, families, or communities in the long term. Indicators are quantifiable measures of progress; they provide numeric assessment of the desired conditions of well-being (see Indicators Tip Sheet for further details). Benchmarks are target levels of performance expressed in measurable terms and specified time frames, against which actual achievement is measured.

III. State Experiences With Strategic Planning: Lessons Learned

Many states have developed strategic plans to guide results-based accountability systems. Examination of numerous planning processes yielded the following lessons:

  • Successful efforts involve stakeholders and gain their support. Strategic plan development requires consideration and articulation of values and priorities; the plan should reflect views expressed by all those involved in the process. States that have successfully designed and adopted plans included all those interested in the strategic planning process. For example, processes have been developed to involve program managers, providers, legislators, and the public in the articulation of visions. Some states have held public meetings; others have coupled meetings of policymakers with public opinion polls asking about the core values of citizens. Inclusion of key stakeholders can take many months and requires that resources be devoted to the activity. However, it is essential to the success and sustainability of the effort.


  • Prioritizing goals is an essential step in developing a strategic plan for a RBA system. Strategic plans are not merely laundry lists of goals, but rather reflect the priorities of those participating in the planning process. The most useful plans are succinct and easily translated into useful measures. Inclusion of too many goals causes states, agencies, and programs to become overwhelmed with the details of data collection and reporting. Friedman (1996) recommends choosing a limited number of broad goals that reflect multiple objectives.


  • Successful public strategic planning processes address conflicting mandates and goals. State officials and managers of public programs are often faced with the need to negotiate between conflicting mandates and goals when articulating strategic plans. For example, job training legislation may include a program goal of placement of all trainees within one month of program completion. Another goal in the same legislation may be that trainees retain employment for at least one year. These goals may conflict: employment that is obtained quickly may not be the best match for the trainees, so they may be more likely to leave these jobs. In such cases, legislation may have been drafted with input from numerous representatives with conflicting views. As public managers develop strategic plans, they should recognize that programs may have conflicting mandates and be explicit about what the agency can and cannot do in light of the mandates.

IV: Additional Resources

General Documents on Strategic Planning

Council of Governors' Policy Advisors. The game plan: Governance with foresight. Washington, DC: Author.

Family Investment Trust. (1995). Missouri's direction for change: Achieving better results for children and families. St. Louis, MO: Author.

Friedman, M. (1996). A strategy map for results-based budgeting: Moving from theory to practice. Washington, DC: The Finance Project.

Indiana Family and Social Services Administration. (1994). Bringing the pieces together... Strategic action plan. Indianapolis, IN: Author.

Minnesota Planning. (1992). Minnesota Milestones: A report card for the future. St. Paul, MN: Author.

Stephens, S. A., Leiderman, S. A., Wolf, W. C., & McCarthy, P. T. (1994, October). Building capacity for system reform. Bala Cynwyd, PA: Center for Assessment and Policy Development.

Information on Strategic Planning

Council of Governors' Policy Advisors (CGPA): Produces reports on developing results-based accountability systems which specifically discuss development of strategic plans. To obtain information contact: CGPA, Hall of the States, 400 North Capitol Street, Suite 390, Washington, DC 20001-1511, tel: 202-624-5386, fax: 202-624-7846.

Indiana Family and Social Services Administration: Developed a strategic plan to guide the state agency. To obtain information contact: Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, 402 W. Washington Street, P.O. Box 7083, Indianapolis, IN 46207-7083.

Minnesota Planning: Developed state-wide strategic plan. To obtain information contact: Minnesota Planning, 658 Cedar, St. Paul, MN 55155, 612-296-3985,

Missouri Family Investment Trust: Developed a strategic plan to guide better results for children and families. To obtain information contact: The Family Investment Trust, 3915 West Pine Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63108, 314-531-5505.

Oregon Progress Board: Responsible for translation of Oregon strategic plan into goals, indicators, and benchmarks. To obtain information contact: Oregon Progress Board, 775 Summer Street, NE, Salem, Oregon 97310, 503-986-0039.

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