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Strategic Planning – Can it Really Make a Difference?

Posted on 20/12/2016
By Vijay Krishnarayan

A couple of months ago I was drying the dishes with my Mother-in-Law after a good Sunday lunch and she asked what kind of week I had coming up. I told her that we were working on the draft of a new strategic plan, a document that would guide our work over the next four years.  She asked “Will it make any difference?” Her response troubled me.

I’ve worked with civil society organisations for a long time and frequently on matters of capacity and organisational development. I’ve seen strategic planning exercises from different points of view: as driver; an informant; and as a facilitator. I confess that on many occasions a small voice inside whispered what my Mother-in-Law said out loud.

I took that sense of doubt with me into the process of developing the Foundation’s current strategic plan back in 2012. At the 2011 Heads of Government Meeting we were asked to re-launch the Commonwealth Foundation. That started with the development of a new strategy. We reviewed and consulted and came up with a plan that struck a chord with what others were saying about civic engagement in governance and development. The process also made us ask tough questions: What will you prioritise?  What will you stop doing? What resources will you need? When I reflect on the strategic planning processes that haven’t made any difference it is the ones that haven’t asked or answered these tough questions.

A plan can also fail because the process that formulated it didn’t engage the people with an interest in its outcomes – whether they be staff, board members or partners. The phrase “bad process – bad product” was never more true. For the Foundation, staff ownership has been a hallmark of our strategic plans and we’ve seen the benefits in implementation over the past four years.

The Foundation’s current plan runs through to June 2017. It has people’s participation in governance at its heart and commits us to: developing the capacity of civil society organisations to engage with institutions; improving the quality of that dialogue; supporting creative expression as a means of shaping public debate; and sharing the learning generated along the way.

At the end of 2015 and with 18 months of the current plan period remaining we understood the need to base its successor on what we have learned over the past four years. We commissioned an external evaluation, which was comprehensive for an organisation the size of the Foundation. It drew on: 60 interviews (with staff, Board and partners); inputs from 30 stakeholder institutions through an online survey; and field work in the Caribbean where grants and projects were appraised.

The final report acknowledged that participatory governance for development was a long term project and found that the Foundation was making good progress. Our main themes resonated with what the global development community was saying. It recommended the alignment of our new strategic objectives with 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and SDG 16 in particular. It also identified areas for improvement, each of which raise tough questions for the next period. The recommendations included the need to:

  • Develop the capacity of civil society organisations where there was a real chance of lasting change rather than focussing exclusively on engaging with regional institutions such as ECOWAS or CARICOM

  • Assess whether civil society was getting enough out of the various established set piece engagements with Commonwealth ministers such as the Commonwealth Health Ministers Meeting

  • Place greater emphasis on grant making that tests new approaches and offers the prospect of learning from experience

The evaluation flagged the need for the Foundation to continue making tough choices about the way we use our resources. It urged further focus in grant-making and programming given the scale of the current budget. It concluded that if choices needed to be made between quality and quantity, we should choose the former, because it will result in deeper impact, and attract new partners in the longer term.

The new plan commits us to strengthening “civic voice.” This is a new term for us and we have used it to respond to the ways in which civil society continues to evolve. Increasingly citizens are engaging directly with institutions via social media. Institutions are reciprocating with the increased use of referendums.  The Foundation wants to support those voices that are not heard in these exchanges. The term will also enable us to explicitly include writers and story tellers in our work. There will be strong emphasis on developing civic voice so that it can engage constructively with institutions.

We will focus on civic voice in order to:

  • Enable broader participation in policy processes from research and analysis to advocacy or active involvement in reform

  • Improve the accountability of institutions in relation to the implementation of policy or the delivery of services

  • Broaden the public conversation on policy issues through dialogue and creative expression

We secured Board approval for the new strategy at the beginning of December. Their agreement validated the findings of the evaluation and endorsed the place of participatory governance for development at the heart of the Foundation’s work. The concept remains as relevant now as it was in 2012. It resonates even louder now with the Commonwealth Charter and the SDG Agenda both of which highlight the importance of inclusive and accountable development.

Ultimately we want to see effective institutions that deliver better development outcomes as a result of civic influence. Partnership and dialogue between stakeholders is universally accepted and civic voice is central to that. Over the past 12 months Commonwealth initiatives on climate change, gender equality and countering violent extremism have each acknowledged the importance of civic engagement. This requires a People’s Commonwealth that is better equipped to both broaden and deepen the ways in which institutions tackle the development challenges of our times.

The coming six months will see the Foundation add details to the outline that the strategic plan provides. We will develop indicators to help us gauge the plan’s success and map out how we will deliver it through a biennial workplan. We’ll also review our resources to make sure that we are in the best shape to implement. It has taken a year to get to this point but in many ways the work starts now.

Photo: Flickr CC Samuel Mann Strategic Planning Workshop