12 – ‘It’s planning time again … I can see that far away look in your eyes’ – Part 2

The legislated requirement for planning doesn’t help.   In Victoria, the Council Plan must be developed and approved by a new council within months of election. It is their plan for the 4 years of their term of office. As such, it typically reflects their political ambitions and their understanding of what the organisation needs to do to meet community needs. A councillor elected for the first time may have limited knowledge about how the council operates. In developing the Council Plan, the councillors receive guidance from the organisation but it is their plan to approve.   Once it has been created, the Council Plan is the dominant plan guiding priorities for the allocation of resources. Each year it is reviewed and ‘refreshed’ with new actions.

The department plans provide the basis for organisational guidance to the councillors in the creation of the Council Plan and its review. The ‘bottom up’ process of creating and then aggregating these plans results in lots of actions. Many councils don’t have an effective process to evaluate these actions, select the highest priority actions (and reject the lesser priority actions), and then develop feasible ways to coordinate effort and allocate resources to implement them. Instead, we accept all of the actions and the result is goal diffusion and uncoordinated effort across the organisation. Does this sound familiar?

The additional risk in this process is failure to incorporate new and emerging strategic issues because planning occurs annually at a set time. Once created and approved by the Council, the Council Plan becomes a public commitment to be met by the organisation. Actions are cascaded down through Department Plans to individual Performance Development Plans. The planning process also occurs in a relatively short period of time and the sequencing of business planning, Council Plan review and budget approval is often not ideal. The Council Plan must be approved before the budget and department plans can’t be finalised until the budget is approved. So, I hear you ask what can be done instead?

This is a difficult question to answer, which reveals part of the explanation for what is currently happening. A primary constraint is the specific legislative requirements that must be met for the development and approval of the Council Plan and the budget. However, the department by department planning approach is a choice. This is probably the place to start if you want to improve. Rather than relying on joining up 20 or more plans to guide the Council Plan, a ‘top down’ organisational planning approach could be taken. A high level Organisational Plan could be created to guide the development of each department’s plan.

This Organisational Plan could incorporate all of the existing financial settings from the Long Term Financial Plan (most councils have one of these to underpin the rating strategy and help forecast recurrent and capital requirements) and set objectives relevant to finances, workforce planning and asset management. In concert with the Council Plan, this would establish a framework for the creation of each department plan. This reflects the approach that has been undertaken by councils in NSW. In an ideal planning framework, the Community Plan would provide a 20 year planning reference for the needs of the community, the Council Plan would pick up on actions from that plan that the council wants to implement over the next 4 year period, and the Organisational Plan would cover the same time period and include activities and resources the organisation needs to deliver those actions. The annual Department Plans would be guided by the Organisation Plan and feed potential actions into the periodic reviews of the Organisation Plan and City Plan.

This approach is possible within the legislated planning requirements in Victoria. The main challenge seems to be the organisation having the confidence to develop an Organisational Plan. The leadership group must feel that it has the ‘understanding of the business’ necessary to do it.

In a future post I will discuss how planning can be better integrated and talk about what is happening in NSW in more detail.

Lancing Farrell