Yes, the web page really does call for “Addintional Comments.” Well, I suppose consultants aren’t hired for their spelling or grammar. Otherwise there wouldn’t be all that bizarre capitalization or the missing punctuation. But you’re here to read my summation of the Collingwood’s fledgling strategic plan, not my editorial critique.
Which is pretty simple: woo-hoo. I reiterate that a strategic plan can be either practical and pragmatic, or woo-hoo. This one is woo-hoo.
By which I mean it is airy fairy collection of generalities, seasoned with ignorance, ideology and irrelevancies and very little actual direction. Well, most woo-hoo plans are. They aren’t meant as a guide to actual accomplishments: they’re meant to make people feel like they accomplished something without having to do the heavy lifting.
It’s not a “strategic plan” – it’s merely a feel-good exercise by people who didn’t want to ask questions in case the facts spoil their recommendations (like finding our your action item was done last term or there has been a corridor to the waterfront for several years now…).
Peter Drucker, author of Management Tasks and Responsibilities (1973) listed four misconceptions about the term “strategic planning” that you can see plague Collingwood’s proposed plan:
- Strategic planning is not a box of tricks, a bundle of techniques.
- Strategic planning is not forecasting.
- Strategic planning does not deal with future decisions.
- Strategic planning is not an attempt to eliminate risk.
What strategic planning is, Drucker said, is:
…the continuous process of making present entrepreneurial (risk-taking) decisions systematically and with the greatest knowledge of their futurity; organizing systematically the efforts needed to carry out these decisions; and measuring the results of these decisions against the expectations through organized, systematic feedback.
Get that? It’s a continual process, not a one-time effort. And it’s measurable. Collingwood’s “plan” is nothing more than a bundle of wishful thinking tied up with buzzwords.
It really doesn’t matter that the town is already doing much of what the plan recommends, nor that the previous council accomplished so many of the things identified as action items. These facts get in the way of those dancing around this May pole, so they will be ignored. “The common people,” Confucius said, “can be made to follow a path but not to understand it.” (Analects, Book VIII, 9)*
This is the vaunted “plan” for our future as promised by now-Deputy Mayor Saunderson during the election campaign within 90 days of being elected. It will be presented on the 287th day, only late by half a year. It won’t be counted as an accomplishment, merely as a waste of taxpayers’ money.
As a “plan,” it’s as useful as comprehensive, insightful and focused guide to the town’s present and future as a fishing pole is to planting corn.
Participants can take heart, however: they have a pretty logo they can stamp on all sorts of documents. True, it is irrelevant to the content and no one outside their little group gives a damn about it, but I’m sure it gives some folks a sense of accomplishment. Of course, it looks like an angry, blue ant about to eat you, but so what? It’s not like anyone will remember it a few months from now.
Nor does it matter that most “action” items in the ‘plan’ are couched in such general terms that they cannot be acted upon without considerable explanation, and discussion – probably each could generate its own lengthy staff report just to explain what might have been meant or how to make it work in the real world. Nor that there are no criteria to measure their implementation or to provide feedback on their effectiveness.
Like most woo-hoos, this one is infused with inaction: verbs cunningly presented as active when they really only suggest action. Hint at it. A sly nod of the head and a wink.
Verbs like encourage, explore, engage and consider don’t actually accomplish something useful: they suggest looking into the possibility of potentially taking action perhaps in the undefined future. They substitute for action so that no one has to get their hands dirty by actually doing something.
This way council’s most important decisions can be postponed and even avoided almost indefinitely because someone else has to explore something else, engage someone else, encourage or consider something, or pursue non-existent opportunities to bring it back to the table for discussion and platitudes. And that takes time; time that can be best spent procrastinating while making vapid statements at the table. Fiddling while Rome burns is what this council does best. Paperwork will be their legacy.
As Peter Drucker also wrote,
“It is meaningless to speak of short-range and long-range plans. There are plans that lead to action today – and they are true plans, true strategic decisions. And there are plans that talk about action tomorrow – they are dreams, if not pretexts for nonthinking, nonplanning, nondoing.”
Opportunities appear in Collingwood’s “plan” like ripe fruit hanging from trees in a mystic orchard, just waiting to be plucked. Philanthropic private sector partners are portrayed chequebooks in hand, like benevolent angels eager to dispense financial blessings on anyone who asks their indulgence. Landowners appear eager to hand over their private property. Artists are eager to donate their art for public display. And everyone is imagined lining up behind the plan and marching in step towards the Golden Future. Council’s Little Red Book, galvanizing the masses.
The naiveté is stunning. Wishful thinking is not a replacement for solid analysis and sound policies. Clap your hands if you believe… but all the Peter Pans at the council table can’t wish life into this Tinkerbell.
And at the head of it all sits a vision statement that reads like a verbal cream soda: sticky, almost nauseatingly sweet, and empty of nutrition.
There are no surprises here: we get what we deserved: fluff. And an angry blue ant logo…
Council wanted an excuse to avoid decision making, and this is the result. While this is being churned into fat-rich butter for public consumption, council can pursue such ideologically-motivated but trivial pursuits as revamping the code of conduct or making the sign bylaw more punitive. Both of which are on their agenda.
Savvy council watchers will, of course, be aware of the secret agenda items I have mentioned in these posts and fear for the future of our community at the hands of the Politburo eager to sell us out for their political masters. Some of this is cunningly buried within the strat plan, but not all of it. The cabal doesn’t divulge its secrets so easily.
Because the “plan’s” contents are neither measurable nor accountable, council can’t be held to account for failing to live up to generalities or vaguely worded objectives that begin with wishy-washy verbs like encourage, explore or consider. This simply lets council off the hook from actually having to do something concrete this term.
But you can bet that there will be honeyed words spoken by our council when the final version gets presented to council September 21.
Then the Politburo that initiated it will be in rapture. They will have their own Little Red Book from which to quote. They will give the “plan” their blessing and utter words of gratitude and platitude, thanking the committee and consultant profusely, praising the content as the “new politics of the negation of the negation.” Its scriptural authority will emanate a sacred aura to guide us to the Golden Future of this great community. Yada, yada, yada.**
I’ll be surprised if they don’t hand out medals to everyone involved. Make them members of the Order of Collingwood on the spot. Maybe give “Senator” Jeffrey another $10,000 to fly to Newfoundland to present them from afar at some distant FCM meeting over caviar and Camembert.
And amidst all that that mutual back-slapping and self-aggrandizing compliments at the council table for a job well done, the rest of us will smirk as the emperor parades naked around town hall. Your tax dollars will be wasted on woo-hoo.
If you think I’ve been overly critical in my analysis, I would argue that my view is based on 12 years covering local politics for the media, and 11 subsequent years on council. I feel confident I have enough experience to recognize codswallop and woo-hoo in whatever political form it masquerades. Let me close with a quotation from the late British MP, Leslie Lever who said:
I have been accused of being ungenerous to this government. Generosity is part of my character and I therefore hasten to assure this government that I will never make an allegation of dishonesty against it wherever a simple explanation of stupidity will suffice.
* Annping Chin’s translation: “The common people can be made to follow a course of action, but they cannot be made to understand the reasons for doing it.” Similar to the Western epithet, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”
** Then will come the workshops to teach the masses how to implement The Plan into their own lives and businesses. Attendance will be mandatory. Bound editions will be made available for compulsory purchase. Copies will be sent out in every tax bill, placed in every school and on every church pew.
…before any action is taken, we must explain the policy, which we have formulated in the light of the given circumstances, to Party members and to the masses. Otherwise, Party members and the masses will depart from the guidance of our policy, act blindly and carry out a wrong policy. Chairman Mao, Little Red Book, Chapter 1.