20 – Plan, promise or accountability tool. What role does your Council Plan play?

I am always interested in documents called ‘plan’. Add ‘strategic’ and you really have my attention. I suppose it all depends on definition of a plan. Here are a few of my thoughts to add to the posts on planning by Lancing Farrell (posts 11 and 12).

I take a plan to mean a document containing your intended actions to achieve an outcome. If circumstances change, the plan will need to change accordingly. It is a mechanism for a group of people to come to a common understanding of what they are going to do and it helps communicate that to others. It guides decision making and the allocation of resources. It is a reference when you need to confirm the direction you want to go in. You probably have your own definition.

In local government, however, plans tend to take on other roles. They become public promises about actions to be taken and the objectives that will be achieved. It is the yardstick to measure the performance of the Council and the organisation and hold them accountable – have they kept their promises? Politicians keeping their promises has become a bit of an obsession in Australia. The Council Plan is the main document that fulfils that purpose in Victorian local government.

Actions from the Council Plan ‘cascade’ into department work plans and the performance plans of individuals, who are then measured on how well they achieve them. Accountability for delivering the plan – implementing the actions and producing the outputs – is then embedded. But what if circumstances change?   What if the plan you started with is no longer a good one? It does happen. As Keynes is reported to have said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Unfortunately, in local government, changing your mind about your plan is often seen as breaking promises or avoiding accountability.

This is a simplistic view of the world. Sometimes the plan needs to change in order for the same outcomes to be achieved. When the outcomes start to change all the time without a process to ensure it is what the community wants, it probably is an accountability problem. I have observed councils sticking to plans and implementing actions that everyone knows are no longer relevant, but they continue to be implemented because ‘we said that we would’. Often this happens because lead time to get an action into the plan has made it obsolete or another more relevant opportunity for action has emerged.

The emergence of a new and better way to achieve the same outcome can be the most difficult to deal with. The Council Plan is not readily amended and the amendment process is public, which opens the door to accusations of breaking promises. It is difficult for a council to take risks in producing value for the community if those risks are to be embodied in the Council Plan. There is usually a process to double check on the ‘doability’ of any actions proposed for the Council Plan – unless we are sure we can do it, it often doesn’t get included. Imagine a business only planning to do the things that it already knows it can do.

The risk is that the plan becomes a controlling document full of risk-free and relatively easily achieved actions.

Is there a solution? The flexibility of a plan to effectively guide action in achieving outcomes must be balanced against the public demand for accountability from their elected representatives and the council. The planning structure and the process to develop and review plans is probably the key. At the moment a lot rides on the Council Plan. In the absence of lesser organisational plans that capture actions and accountabilities of the organisation, they are being incorporated into the City Plan, which is essentially the plan made by the councillors for their term in office. As such, it necessarily has a political focus.

A better planning process, which is possible within the legislated planning framework, would seem to be the answer.

Colin Weatherby