It has been discussed a lot about planning and its importance in public sector. From practitioners to scholars, one can say that it is an emblematical topic when it comes to quality of public administration. Although recent academic literature strives to bring new elements to an old concept, the idea of planning remains quite simple. It represents the design and construction of administrative procedures for determining the trajectory which the organization has to take in order to achieve a desired purpose. To some extent, all organizations engage in planning, even if only loosely and intuitively (Boyne 2001).
Authors advocate in favor of its widespread use in all levels of government and public management. This is not by chance, in fact the statistical evidence shows that organizational performance is positively related to favorable attitudes towards planning processes (Boyne and Gould-Williams 2003).
The focus on planning is answering how the organization is going to achieve the previously determined goals (Raczkowski 2016), what requires the best choice among several potentially valid strategies. Thus, it does not make sense to talk about planning in the current stage of public organizations without implicitly conceiving the idea of strategic planning in any application, theoretical or practical. However, it is worth mentioning that the adoption of this adjective in planning concept is quite recent.
The evolution of planning, which occurred simultaneously with a series of related reforms, was implemented aiming on making government more productive, responsive, and focused on performance (Hendrick 2003). It reflected large-scale organizational changes and adjustments occurred in the United States and England between the 1970s and 1990s, gradually incorporated in Brazil and other countries.
Ever since, the concept has been conceived as an important element of the decision-making process in both private and public sector. In a classical text on planning, Ackoff (1970) defines it as effective ways of bringing a design of a desired future about. In other words, an anticipatory decision making, i.e., an instrument, is used nowadays to reach larger long-run benefits.
To varying degrees, the structural conditions that made effective strategizing by the public sector in the 1980s and 1990s remain until nowadays. The immediate context in which it takes place has evolved and, potentially, enhanced the effectiveness of decision making and planning (Brown 2010).
However, when making decisions of general relevance and interest, public sector bodies are called to demonstrate that such choices not only regard costs and benefits but are also based on evidence and acknowledge uncertainty. Today’s turbulent times make these efforts even more compelling (Genovese 2018). For this reason, it is fair to say that planning has become even more valid and valuable compared with the past.
Currently, planning concerns adaptation and overcoming obstacles. In the face of important changes, either in the internal or external environment, public managers have to be able to engage with offices and manage public resources for anticipating actions in order to rebuild necessary paths to achieve the desired goals.
This is even more relevant in the public sector, since its plans involve achieving the collective good. However, contrary to common sense, the will of the majority is not, as a rule, taken into account. However, the competitive interests of various groups in society have to be considered in the process of planning; it does not always realize the common good (Fox-Rogers and Murphy 2014).
Planning is necessary not only to build the basis for government success, but also to ensure the best conditions for allocating scarce resources among competitive projects. For this purpose, it is required a worldwide attitude, and for accountability reasons, no government can be deprived.
Some of the key benefits of planning are: promoting strategic thinking; building the needed coalitions of support; improving decision-making; enhancing overall coordination; adapting to environmental changes; addressing broad public problems; improving organizational legitimacy, creating real public value; and directing benefits for the people involved (Bryson 2010). Public managers need to link the planning with performance management processes in response to the continued pressure for accountability, as well as their own commitment for managing results (Poister 2010).
Although planning is a universal practice and several of its elements are of widespread use, one should not consider that it is the same in all parts of the world. Specific conditions in developing country such as Brazil make planning even more challenging. Among these factors, it is worth mentioning political context, social problems, economic fragility, public financing, fiscal federalism, and lack of infrastructure as following discussed.
Political context: A transitional democracy is still present in the Brazilian political context, which is shaped by a coalition government and a multiparty system, generating fragile conditions of governability. The party polarization experienced in recent years is an additional challenge, since some level of compliance with the government plan and actions is necessary to ensure the stability of government and the success of planning.
The need to create coalitions with multiple and competing objectives in order to gain passage of legislation can result in a lack of policy clarity in public sector, which Baumer (1978) described as “Shaky Coalitions.” Even through the planning process, it can become a huge issue during the implementation phase, since it is a multiannual task and demand annual support.
Social problems: Brazil has made many advances in social aspects in the last two decades such as reducing extreme poverty, promoting the schooling of children and adults, creating of social inclusion programs, and improving quality of life in urban and rural areas. On the other hand, aspects as labor productivity, health conditions, public safety, and employment are still great challenges for implementation of the government plans, especially actions for socio-economic development.
Economic fragility: Economic conditions directly influence planning, either because of the unpredictability of macroeconomic scenarios or because of microeconomic conditions and their impacts on growth and public financing. Strong currency fluctuations, high interest rates, and high unemployment are some of these elements.
Public Financing: Planning requires a huge budgetary effort to maintain a regular cash flow aiming to carry out the planned actions, particularly in an unstable economic environment. It comes under controversial conditions since the largest source of budget is taxation. The additional means of public funding, like those coming from public companies, concessions, privatization, and sales of public assets are more complex. Therefore, public spending and growth are the central elements for maintaining adequate planning conditions.
Federalism: Federalism system is a condition of great complexity when it comes to put any public plan in action. The three layers of government have to strictly comply with the federal constitution to carry out multiyear planning (PPA), Budget Guidelines Law (LDO) and Budget Law (LOA), known as the three pieces of planning and budget in Brazil. The latter is the public budget, which requires the support of the majority legislators to be approved annually. In these pieces of planning lay the foundation for building the analytical budget, which establishes the resource allocation map for the coming 48 months. Additionally, it sets financial priority for the coming year, targets for each government agency, and short and long-term goals for every sector, as well as area of public administration. Moreover, different levels of government implement many interconnected policies requiring coordination and institutional arrangement for the construction and success of the plan. It is a multidimensional process sharing responsibilities among the three levels of government and several public agencies; it means that the lack of responsibility of one of them can jeopardize the whole process. Planning in this environment requires what Jenkins (2006) calls interoperability or collaboration over adaptation, i.e., a reciprocal communication and accommodation of interest in order to reach interactive operating policy and programming.
Lack of infrastructure: Infrastructure is an essential condition for a country to grow and thrive. Both the public and private sectors are dependent on adequate infrastructure conditions to optimize their plans. Planning is the necessary condition to achieve the right infrastructure, leading to a virtuous cycle of processes. Moreover, we know that infrastructure deficit causes a substantial part of the inefficiency and lack of productivity. However, including infrastructure investments in development plans requires enhancing the quality of public spending, generating primary surplus, reducing interest payments and long-term commitment, the major challenges in Brazil, since there is still a culture of disruption, misuse of public resources and inefficiency, especially in large contracts.
Social participation: Although law requires social participation in many public policies, Brazil has been timidly expanding citizens’ participation in government, especially when it concerns planning. Participatory planning and participatory budgeting experiences are the exception rather than the rule in all different regions of the country. Although the national government’s philosophy regarding the importance of participation has great relevance in this process, we have been experiencing changes in the opposite direction.
What can we expect from the evolution of this concept in the following years? It is fair to assume the increasing importance of this theme in the public sector, as well as in complexities. The question that remains is how to connect all elements in order to constitute means of overcoming the barriers and limitations imposed for achieving the desired results. The current literature suggests a practical integration with the idea of strategic management, that is, the active dynamics of results-oriented planning in an environment of greater transparency and accountability. It includes operational and business planning, budgets, workforce development and training, other management and administrative processes, internal and external communications, analytical and problem-solving capabilities, program delivery mechanisms, legislative agendas, leadership skills, and an organization’s ability to influence other actors (Poister and Streib 1999).
Finally, one can say that there is a perceived shift from ideas of inward-facing planning committed only to the principles of the public sector to a multidimensional orientation and to the whole society values, involving the private and third sector in the construction of a common interest result. However, regardless the change of focus with the likely incorporation of some new adjective, the original idea and the importance of the planning will remain quite the same. As Ackoff (1970) claimed decades ago, “the need for planning is so obvious and so great that it is hard for anyone to be against it.” Thus, the operative question for public managers is how to make planning an increasingly effective and interesting tool.
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