Strategic Planning

  • Create the vision

  • Define the mission

  • Identify the requirements

  • Prioritize the effort

  • Do the work

  • Track the progress

The term 'strategic planning' has been so over-used and misused that its simple, common sense meaning has been lost. Concurrently, strategic plans and strategic planning are primarily seen as being most appropriate for large businesses and complex organizations. This is, indeed, unfortunate since the six steps listed above are there for everyone who wants to succeed. This includes individuals and groups, small and large businesses, and every organization no matter how complex or simple. The fact is this. The success potential of any human endeavor increases in direct proportion to the quality of the strategic plan associated with it.

For example, consider any child protection agency, large or small. Is a vision of safe children, stable families, and a supportive community necessary for agency success? It assuredly is, even if the best that can be done today is to keep some children safe, help some families become more stable, and encourage parts of the community to be more supportive of its children and families. Without a vision of a better world for children, there is little point to the work of the agency.

The agency cannot do it all, cannot single-handedly realize the vision. Even so, it can contribute to the outcome. If it tries to do everything, it will fail. Only if the agency limits its role and clearly defines its mission can it succeed.

What will it take? The requirements for success must certainly be identified. The agency cannot do everything at once. Its efforts and use of resources must be prioritized. What must be done before what? What has to be done today and what can wait until tomorrow? What is the agency's strategy for success?

With the agreed-to strategy in hand, doing the work is obviously necessary but is not enough. There has to be a way of tracking progress. Are the planned outcomes being realized? Is the agency moving toward or away from success?

Can your agency get along without strategic planning and a strategic plan? Quite simply, 'Yes.' Child protection agencies are very busy and do good work, with or without a strategic plan. However, for agencies that are not committed to strategic planning, three of the six steps listed above are usually missing. They competently identify the requirements as defined by law and administrative rule, prioritize the effort, and do the work. Missing are a shared vision of the best outcomes for the community's children and families, a well-defined mission directing the agency's role in achieving those outcomes, and valid strategies to track the progress toward realizing the vision. The focus is on process, not on outcomes for children and families.

There are many effective ways to incorporate the six strategic planning steps into your agency's operations. The key to success is being sure that all six steps receive concentrated attention and become integral elements in your ongoing efforts. The approach presented here provides a well-tested framework for successfully and continuously moving your agency, large or small, toward excellence. PCSAO has used this approach to facilitate the development of strategic plans in more than half of Ohio's counties, with the goal of transforming how local agencies do business. This approach was first developed by William Passmore and subsequently refined by Mark Hartford and the staff of the Institute for Human Services (IHS), headquartered in Columbus, Ohio.

The Model:

Virtually all child protection agencies are committed to child safety and work very hard to keep 'their children' safe. Unfortunately, that work is frequently not informed by a shared vision for the community's children and families. In the absence of a shared vision, these organizations are seldom dynamic and often become bound by bureaucratic process and inertia. Such agencies find themselves administering a variety of disjointed programs with few unifying themes such as freedom from abuse and neglect for all of the community's children and permanence in a stable family for every child. Additionally, agency workers seldom enjoy job satisfaction from this type of environment since they seldom see positive outcomes, save those of successfully completing the process that is defined for them by others. That process is the central focus of all work, in the absence of a shared vision and well-defined mission. Further, clients are limited to a fixed menu of agency responses that often fail to fully and appropriately meet their needs. Customizing agency responses to align with client needs is seldom done because doing so would unacceptably deviate from the pre-defined process.

This model emphasizes the need for successful organizations to be externally and internally vision driven and mission focused. It begins by clearly defining and explicitly stating what the vision of the organization is for the community's children and families and, in turn, for the clients it serves. Since the vision extends beyond the legal and practical boundaries of any specific organization, the agency must define its unique contribution to the attainment of that vision, i.e., its mission, its reason for existence.

Next, the agency must identify what is required to pursue its mission and determine its priorities (critical initiatives). If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. Additionally, the day-to-day work must continue while the agency planfully develops the map for its journey toward excellence.

This map is, of course, the agency's strategic plan. Along with focusing on and defining excellence for the agency, it shows the path to follow along the way. The good news here is that the strategic plan does show the way toward excellence. The bad news is that excellence is not a place it is a destination. The very best strategic plan can only show the way as far as today's vision can reach, knowing that, when the agency gets there, its vision will extend even farther.

Strategic planning is, thus, not a discrete event. Rather, it is an ongoing commitment to moving toward excellence and to iterative planning cycles. The commitment is to a self-renewing series of strategic plans, generally each spanning two or three years. The distance an agency can move during each planning cycle is variable. The constant pressure for change that is a necessary part of strategic planning must be exerted at a level that does not cause the agency's foundation to collapse. Too much pressure and the foundation collapses. Too little pressure and the necessary change does not occur. Determining the level of change-pressure an organization can bear without imploding and then constantly maintaining that precise pressure, no more--no less, is one of the most critical skills common to effective leaders in child protection.

The Planning Process:

'We don't have time for strategic planning. The day-to-day work of the agency consumes all of our time, energy, and resources.'

  • Strategic planning certainly does take time, energy, and resources.

  • Strategic planning certainly does, in the short run, take the required time, energy, and resources away from the immediate work of the agency.

  • Without strategic planning, though, most agencies will simply persist in doing what they have always done, the way they have always done it.

    Imagine yourself a worker at the beginning of an automobile assembly line. Your job is to affix five bolts on a piece of metal. Also assume that you have no idea that at the end of the assembly line, an automobile will emerge. Further, assume that, even if you did hear rumors about automobiles, you knew nothing about the greater vision: providing safe, convenient transportation for individuals and families. What a boring, tedious job you would have!

Applying the Excellent Systems Model to this example, affixing the bolts represents 'the job,' while producing a high quality automobile represents the 'mission' for the assembly line. Of course, safe, convenient transportation for individuals and families is the vision that drives the effort. The assembly line contributes to achieving the vision but cannot do it by itself. Good roads and adequate fuel supplies, among other things, are also needed.

Now, think back on your life experiences. How many times have you seen visionary leaders who actually accomplish very little? They have wonderful ideas, access to adequate resources, intense passion for their causes, and are in positions to realize their visions. Still, they fail. These failures are typically due to their inability to develop the structures and organizations needed to successfully do the work required to realize their visions.

To succeed, a visionary agency must, of course, attend carefully to its vision. Concurrently, equal attention must also be given to thoughtfully developing and maintaining the required structure and organization. The approach described below systematically develops a vision driven, strategic plan which has community-wide support. Additionally, the resulting plan is mission focused, develops the required structure and organization, and prioritizes the necessary work to transform the agency into a center of excellence.

Environmental Scans:

Environmental scans actively involve the public in the agency's planning and transformation processes. The public pays the taxes that support the agency's operation. It is, in fact, their agency. Involving the public is no more optional than would be involving the 'owners' in the strategic planning for any business. It would make little sense to do otherwise, although, for public agencies, excluding the public from strategic planning processes is much more common than one might imagine.

The agency has been authorized to do its work on behalf of the public. It only makes sense that the public, defined in the broadest sense, must be involved in the planning process. To do otherwise would be extraordinarily shortsighted and potentially counterproductive, especially when the agency depends on the public for continuing authorization and financial support.

The agency must cast its net wide and far to invite the public to participate in the planning process and to provide the essential data about what they want to be included in the agency's strategic plan. What is normally defined as the 'usual cast of characters,' e.g., elected officials, service providers, law enforcement representatives, members of the faith community, the media, etc. are of course invited. Additionally, though, parents, foster parents, children and youth, and other interested members of the public should also actively take part in this phase of the strategic planning process. The key question is, 'Who else could we have invited?' Invite them.

Environmental scanning participants in each scanning session (Depending on the size of the community, more than one session may be necessary.) are, through a facilitated process, asked to respond one-question-at-a-time to a series of three structured questions:

  • What are your hopes for children, families, and your community ten years from now?

The group, which may consist of more than one hundred people, is broken into sub-groups of six to eight individuals who normally do not work together. Sub-group members are asked to first discuss the above question and reach consensus in their small groups about what their response will be for that question. The response captures what they, as a group, want and value.

Each sub-group is next asked to record its response on a large sheet of paper that can be displayed so the full group can see each other's responses. If reasonable within the available time and in the facility, each sub-group should also verbally report their response to the full group. If not, the facilitator should report to the full group, being sure to include the response of every sub-group. Through this process, every participant has the opportunity to contribute data.

While the reports are being given to the full group, either the primary facilitator or a qualified assistant begins to identify and record what organizations and individuals, formal and informal, need to be involved to support the attainment of the wants and values being reported. The agency, courts, mental health, substance abuse treatment, law enforcement, child care, churches, parks and recreation, etc. are a few of the many which will be listed. The Children's Safety Net (See the Introduction) exists in every community and realizing the wants and values of the full group will require the coordinated efforts of all of its members.

Every member of the scanning group has the opportunity to contribute to creating the vision. This is the information that will be used by the 'guiding group' (discussed later) in its development of a community vision for children, families, and the community. Once developed, this vision will be shared with the community, including the participants in the environmental scanning process.

  • What is the unique contribution that the child protection agency can make to the attainment of this vision?

The facilitator has recorded a large number of individuals and organizations within the Children's Safety Net that must contribute to realizing the wants and values identified by the full group. This question is designed to 'ratchet down' the role of the agency in attaining the vision. The agency cannot do everything but it does have an important contribution to make. What should that contribution be?

Again, the full group divides into sub-groups of six to eight participants, discusses the question, and reports out to the full group. The reports represent the information that will be used by the guiding group when developing the agency's mission statement during its planning process.

  • What are the unique opportunities and barriers facing children and families?

The small group process is repeated and reports are made to the full group. This information will be considered when the guiding group determines the priorities that the strategic plan will address.

There are several important, direct outcomes from the environmental scanning process. First, the public has been invited to contribute to the development of the agency's strategic plan and the planning process has been explained to them. Next, if the media chose to attend the session, it may report on the activity and on the data contributed through the environmental scanning process. If so, many people who did not attend the session will be made aware of the planning initiative. Additionally, the agency has been provided specific information about what the public wants and values.

Further, there is a powerful and oftentimes unintended consequence of the environmental scanning process, i.e., education. Far too often, there are misconceptions and just plain bad information that abound about agency practices. These beliefs can be identified, discussed, and clarified, usually in the sub-group sessions. Community support for the agency is generally higher after the environmental scanning process. However, that increased support will be withdrawn quickly if the agency fails to take definitive action to either better explain current practices or to modify agency practices to better conform to public expectations.

Development of the Plan:

After the environmental scans have been completed, the guiding group meets to develop the final plan for change. This group, consisting of no more than thirty people, should be comprised primarily of agency staff representing all facets of the agency. In larger agencies, sub-groups may be created, with additional members added to the sub-groups, to address various functions of the organization, with their work-products then merged into a master strategic plan for the agency by the guiding group. Through this process, consensus is reached on:

  • The vision for children, families, and the community.

The environmental scan data is used heavily by the group. This vision is an explicit statement of the hopes for children, families, and the community.

  • The mission statement for the agency, its reason for being.

Again, environmental scan data is used. Here, the agency is explicitly stating its reason for being and defined its unique contribution to the attainment of the vision.

  • The specific initiatives, which the final strategic plan will address.

  • Measurable objectives that will be used to track the progress of the strategic initiatives, as well as;

  • (A) Discrete activities

  • (B) Timelines

  • (C) Persons responsible for assuring that the work is done

  • Scheduling of review dates at the four, eight, twelve, and eighteen month points to:

  • (A) Track progress on the plan

  • (B) Identify any new activities needed to achieve success

  • (C) Celebrate the successes with staff

  • (D) Report the progress status to the community

  • The plan to communicate the plan to stakeholders and to the general community.

This step is critical. The strategic plan's initial development is the product of the guiding group and no one else. Strategies for informing elected officials, the media, the public, and others need to be crafted. The agency has asked them to use their valuable time to participate in the process and, in turn, needs to provide accurate and complete feedback to them about the final strategic plan and about how the process is progressing.

Reporting To Environmental Scan Participants:

An executive summary of the plan, including the proposed community vision, agency mission, critical initiatives, and objectives is prepared for the environmental scan group. The group is then reconvened. Through a facilitated process similar to the original environmental scan process, the group responds to these questions:

  • What do you like about the vision statement and what would make is better?

  • What do you like about the mission statement and what would make it better?

  • Are the critical initiatives appropriate and understandable?

  • Will you personally help the agency achieve the strategic plan's goals?

  • (A) If so, how will you help?

  • (B) If not, how would the plan need to be changed so you will want to help?

All data generated through this process is collected, analyzed, and given to the guiding group for its consideration during its four-month follow-up session.

The PCSAO has facilitated strategic planning in more than fifty public child protection agencies. If you were to lay the vision statements thus created side-by-side, you would observe that, although the wording changes, the primary themes from vision statement to vision statement are virtually identical. People want the same things:

  • For their children, they want safety and opportunity.

  • For their families, they want strength and stability.

  • For their communities, they want an environment that is supportive and responsive to children and families.

If you were to similarly lay the mission statements developed through this process side-by-side, you would see that they, too, are practically identical. (For example, see the LCCS vision and mission statements in a later chapter.) They consistently emphasize and focus on:

  • Increasing the safety and permanence for children.

  • Increasing the stability of families.

  • Providing high quality services.

  • Developing effective community partnerships.


The agency has a strategic plan that focuses staff, the community, and the media on the priorities the agency will pursue as it moves toward excellence. It has opened its doors and invited the community to join it in working toward increasing safety for the community's children, in increasing the stability of the community's families, and in strengthening the community itself. For the agency to succeed in fulfilling its mission, it must have broad community support. Garnering that necessary support takes time and begins with the agency taking the first step. That first step was to invite the community into its planning process and to use the community's beliefs and values to shape the final strategic plan.

It is critical to see that the community's support is tentative at this point. It is based on the fact that the agency has involved the community in the development of its strategic plan. The community can see its input throughout the plan. People believe they have been heard.

Were the agency to go back to business-as-usual at this point and simply shelf the plan, community support would be quickly withdrawn. In that event, further support would be very difficult to amass again, even at this tentative level, anytime soon. If, instead, the agency implements the plan and shares the results of its efforts with the public on an ongoing basis, community support will continue to grow. This growing support is, in turn, reinforced by the agency's increasing ability and willingness to be explicitly responsive and accountable to the public.

Strategic achievements and successes should also be regularly celebrated with staff. The agency must 'chase success' and recognize the staff that are responsible for that success. Over time, success is contagious. Staff attach increased meaning to their work because it is now connected to a vision they have participated in creating, a vision that is also supported by the community.

Achievements and successes should, likewise, be regularly shared with the community in a planful manner. The same measures of success that are celebrated with the staff become measures of accountability to the public. In short, the accountability of the agency increases and it is perceived as being more responsive to the community. The agency has stated publicly, 'This is what we are going to do,' and is doing it. The public knows that the commitment is being kept because it is receiving regular feedback chronicling the agency's progress.

The agency's mission and goals are explicitly stated and the public has agreed with their contents. The agency has provided the leadership to initiate this dialogue and the public values this open, pro-active approach. Its confidence in the agency continues to grow.

As a result of the agency's success, other community organizations may be pressured to follow its lead, if they have not already done so. The public values openness. If one organization opens its doors, community expectations are that others should be doing the same. If this occurs and other agencies respond, the vision that was created through the agency's strategic planning process should be used for it is the community's vision, not just the agency's. It may be modified through future planning processes but that only gives emphasis to the reality that it is the community's vision, not any single agency's.

If the planning process can be extended to other community agencies and organizations, the resulting mission statements and the associated strategic plans of the individual organizations can be laid side-by-side. This enables the identification of gaps in services, duplication of effort, and needs related to better coordination of services. The community issues identified through these activities can be shared with elected officials and other key stakeholders. Again, this openness and collaboration with the community builds strong public value for the work being done and will lead to increased authorization for needed programs and services. Putting the 'cards on the table' in this way will also likely result in increased operating resources to do the needed work.

As you consider strategic planning for your agency, it will help to explicitly highlight the key factors that support successful plan implementation and increase community support for the agency:

  • The community is heavily involved in the planning.

  • The right people are in the guiding group.

  • The plan is followed and modified as necessary.

  • Successes and barriers are communicated internally and externally on a regular basis.

  • All decisions are held next to the vision and mission statements to measure consistency. If a decision is consistent, go forward. If it is not, go back and get it right.

It will also help to explicitly highlight the key factors that undermine successful plan implementation and community support for the agency:

  • The agency only invites people it feels will agree with it to the scanning process and only superficially involves the public.

  • A small group of agency leaders develop the plan in a vacuum.

  • The plan is abandoned and staff are permitted to go back to business-as-usual.

  • Successes and barriers are not communicated internally or externally.

  • Decisions are reactionary and made without a clear vision and well-defined mission.

The following vision and mission statements were developed jointly by Ohio's 88 county child protection agencies in 1994, with updates and revisions during the 1996, 1998, and 2000 strategic planning cycles.


  • Children grow within a safe nurturing environment within a permanent family.

  • Children will have their basic needs met including food, clothing, shelter, health care, and education.

  • Children will have a strong sense of self worth and identity.

  • Children will have a positive anticipation of the future.

  • Children will have a valued place in their family and the community.

  • Children will have an investment in their family and community.

  • Families provide the basic unit and foundation of communities and are respected and valued for their uniqueness, history, and traditions.

  • Families are responsible for rearing their children.

  • Families provide a value base for their children based on respect for self, others, and the environment.

  • Families have the spiritual, cultural, and economic resources necessary to reach their full potential and contribute to the well-being of their communities.

  • Families are able to seek help without stigma.

  • Communities will view resources to children and families as investments in the future.

  • Communities will recognize the rights and needs of children and families as their highest priority and agree upon common goals for protecting their health and well-being by building on the strengths of families.

  • Communities will identify and confront injustice.

  • Communities will respect and support the strengths of the racial, cultural, and ethnic heritage of families and neighborhoods.

  • Communities will have access to and commit public and private resources to effectively serve and support children, adults, and families.

  • Communities will provide everyone with the opportunity, encouragement, and support to learn, grow, and contribute.


The Public Children Services Association of Ohio is a proactive coalition of public children services agencies that promotes the development of sound public policy and program excellence for safe children, stable families, and strong communities. We do this through advocacy, research, training, consultation, and technical assistance.

By Dan Schneider, Gary A. Crow, Patti-Jo Burtnett March 23, 2017