Strategic decision making in the public sector is inherently complex because it involves deciding on significant plans about the future direction of your agency, workforce, budgets and services, based on often limited information and input from multiple stakeholders. Furthermore, you must factor in differing views of what is in the public interest, in an organisational context where implementing change successfully requires considerable and prolonged effort.

One approach to strategic decision making comes from Mark Moore, Hauser Professor of Nonprofit Organisations at the Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Moore is a pioneer in researching how public leaders can engage communities to support and legitimise their work.

According to Moore’s 'Strategic Triangle' model, you need to consider three key questions when making a strategic decision the public sector context:

  1. Is the purpose publicly valuable? (Public value proposition)
  2. Is it politically and legally possible? (Authorising environment)
  3. Is it administratively and operationally feasible? (Operating capacity)

1. Public value proposition

It is important to pursue aims that will bring measurable benefit to the public sphere and address the community's priorities. An assessment of public value should reconcile what the public wants with what protects and enhances the public sphere (Benington, 2010). These two aspects are often in tension and sometimes in conflict.

When making a strategic decision, ask:

  • Does it align with my agency's strategic goals?
  • Does it address the priorities of the population?
  • Does it deliver measurable public value?
  • Does it incorporate the views of citizens, gathered via a consultation process, in an effort to understand and reconcile conflicting views?
  • Does it consider short term gains as well as longer-term interests for future generations?
  • Does it reconcile public views (what people want) with public good (what people need)?

2. Authorising environment

Delivering public value requires the support of many key external stakeholders - including government representatives, interest groups and tax-paying citizens. To build a coalition of support and create a platform of legitimacy, you must be accountable to these different groups and engage them in ongoing dialogue.

To secure the resources you need to maintain support for your decision, you must promote an engaging story of public value creation, and communicate regularly with stakeholders about the progress towards achieving your target outcomes. You need to communicate these messages in three different directions: upwards, through institutional, legal and political structures; downwards, through management and operational lines; and outwards, to the public.

When considering your authorising environment, ask:

  • Does the decision consider the current political climate and how that will affect the outcomes?
  • Does it align (or comply) with relevant legislative frameworks and statutes?
  • Does it incorporate consultation and approval from the Government, via the Minster and their office?
  • Does it factor in approval from head of the relevant Department or agency?
  • Does it involve consultation with key internal and external stakeholders and influencers?
  • Does it incorporate a defensible level of consultation with the public?

3. Operating capacity

To deliver public value, your goals need to be practically achievable using the resources - funds, people, skills and technology - available to you. Resources are often limited, and fixed in the public sector, so you may have to use your influence as a senior executives to increase, reallocate or redeploy the resources at your disposal to achieve a more effective outcome. In doing so, you may need to be persuasive in mobilising the support and resources of partner agencies.You will also have to demonstrate expertise in regulating the performance of any organisation you have contracted to help execute your plans.

When considering your operating capacity, ask:

  • Does my plan realistically consider the resources (finances, people, skills, and technology) required to deliver the outcome?
  • Does it consider the availability of existing resources and how to redeploy these resources (if necessary)?
  • Does it consider how to recruit additional resources  - either externally or from NSW Treasury or partner agencies - as required?
  • Does it consider the potential to enhance organisational productivity and capability, to ‘do more with less’?
  • Does it prioritise options that deliver the most public value given the resource constraints?
  • Does it consider the operational risks associated with delivering the desired outcome?

Further information

Mark Moore is the Hauser Professor of Nonprofit Organisations at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he has pioneered research into how public leaders can engage communities to support and legitimise their work. He is also senior lecturer at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government, and deeply understands the Australian and New Zealand policy context. Moore’s model is one of the key frameworks used in the NSW Public Service Commission’s Executive Leadership Essentials Program for senior executives in the NSW public sector.