I confess that my heart sinks a little when I hear the words, “we need to develop a strategy”. While always founded in good intentions, strategy development is often a lengthy process leading to the production of fat volumes crammed with detail that are quickly consigned to a shelf.
And yet there is a real appetite for strategy among civil servants and from our delivery partners.
So what’s going wrong? I think the answer is that, when people say “we need a strategy”, what they actually mean is “give me a way to make sense of where we are going and how I fit in”. And often our strategies, full of good material as they are, lose sight of that basic need.
So, when we set out to develop a strategy for Defra, we had that firmly in mind. Our challenge was to set direction not just for Defra as a government department, but for the Defra group. For the first time, we were trying to make sense of where 35 different organisations involved in delivering Defra’s objectives are going, and helping nearly 22,000 people see where they fit in.
Creating a great place to live
The Defra strategy is a short document, not a weighty tome. It starts with a vision – creating a great place for living – and the brief ‘story’ of what Defra is about. These give everyone across the Defra group a way of relating their personal role to a broader purpose. At a recent town hall event I asked everyone present to write down what they are doing in 2016 to create a great place for living. This short exercise produced a rich assortment of responses that illustrate the variety of what people in Defra do.
And variety is key to understanding Defra’s work – the Environment Agency, Natural England, the Rural Payments Agency, and the Veterinary Medicine Directorate are just a few of the organisations in the group. Our strategy, simply and clearly, sums up how Defra and our arm’s length bodies will work together to fulfil seven key objectives.
Four of these cover our ambitions for the key priorities: the natural environment, the rural economy, the farming industry, and protection from natural threats and hazards. Three further objectives outline our commitment to become a modern, integrated Defra with a skilled, professional workforce. This is all complemented by four critical cross-cutting themes – better use of data, increasing productivity, better regulation and working internationally.
Objectives and priorities
Vision, story, objectives, themes – these are what make up the strategy, because they are what our people need to make sense of where we’re going and see where they fit in. Throughout the process we’ve aimed to keep it simple. Visual appeal matters too, so we’ve made the strategy attractive to look at and introduced icons to symbolise our strategic objectives.
And people need to see how they fit in with the wider government agenda as well. That means publishing our objectives and priorities (the ‘what’ and the ‘how’) alongside all other departments across Whitehall through the Single Departmental Plans.
It appears to have gone down well so far. Since publishing the strategy a month ago, it has been viewed 12,000 times by staff. At our recent senior leaders event, 95% said they understood it and 80% committed to specific actions to help deliver it. I’m proud to be able to say that, for the first time, we’re putting in place a single strategy, a single plan and a programme of change that will create an outstanding organisation able to achieve our vision.
Follow Clare on Twitter: @ClareMoriarty.