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Strategies and action plans – A way for the Government to govern?

The Swedish Agency for Public Management has studied how the Government uses strategies and action plans to govern and how these interact with other forms of governance(*). The purpose, among other things, has been to investigate the motives for developing a strategy or action plan and how these can contribute to effective governance.

We have studied almost 60 strategy documents from the period 2010 to 2016. In addition, we have selected six different kinds of strategies for in-depth study where we have interviewed the relevant representatives of the Government Offices and other government agencies. We have, for example, posed questions about the process of developing strategies and how they have influenced the activities of the government agencies. Furthermore, we have used the conclusions from six evaluations of varying strategies and action plans carried out by the Swedish Agency for Public Management in recent years.

Wide variation between strategies

The Government's strategies differ in terms of both form and content. Some are comprehensive and detailed, and others are short and provide an outline. The variation makes it difficult to describe the strategies in general terms and categorise them into clear groups.

The form is important

Most often, the strategy documents are published as information brochures, but in some cases strategies are presented in government bills or communications to the Swedish Parliament. A strategy is not a formal policy instrument in itself, but it can function as such if it constitutes a government bill decided on by the Swedish Parliament. The choice of form can be influenced by the nature of the content and those to which the strategy is directed.

Strategies are often cross-sectoral

Many of the strategies relate to issues that concern several different areas. In those cases, they often target a variety of actors. But strategies can also be narrowly focused, and only encompass a few measures and actors.

Business matters and social issues dominate

Strategies are used for almost all policy areas, but are more common within certain ones. In particular, they often address business matters or social issues where non-governmental actors in many cases play a major role in the development of the area.

Several motives for developing a strategy

There are often several motives for developing a strategy, although they are seldom outlined clearly in the documents. Here are examples of relatively common motives.

  • Formulate and develop the policy.
  • Clarify the policy, create an overview and context.
  • Communicate, convince and anchor.
  • Denote a long-term undertaking.
  • Raise the status of an area.

Strategies are not formal policy instruments

Most strategies are not formal policy instruments. Certainly, they usually include several concrete policy measures, such as commissions to government agencies. However, these must be decided within the framework of the Government's regular routines.

It is difficult to measure the results

A traditional chain of governance consists in its simplest form of goals, measures and results. For our in-depth study we have chosen strategies that contain relatively many policy measures. It is then possible to examine them based on the chain of governance.

All strategies indicate some kind of goal, but they are different in nature. In some areas it is difficult to formulate specific goals. This applies in many cases to the area of social issues. Instead, a preference is outlined for what direction that development should take. With this type of goal, it is difficult to evaluate the results of the efforts, something which the Swedish Agency for Public Management has pointed out in several of its evaluations of different strategies. It is easier to specify clear and measurable targets in areas that are more technical in nature, as well as in cases where the goal is to produce plans or statistics. 

The most common policy measure in the strategies is to notify government agencies of commissions or to refer to previous commissions. Appointing a national coordinator or signing an agreement with the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions are elements sometimes included in strategies in areas where this is relevant. 

It is seldom possible to highlight any measurable results or effects of the strategy itself, as they are linked to the concrete measures. On the other hand, a strategy can help raise awareness in an area. In some cases, the most important outcome is often that the process of developing the strategy has helped to anchor the issue in the Swedish Parliament or with the most important actors. 

Strategies can also be used to communicate, follow up and develop policies. They can also serve as a supporting documentation when the Government Offices are coordinating measures within different areas.

Strategies can strengthen the Government's governance

The question is how strategies can complement and strengthen traditional governance. We have identified three contexts where strategies can play a special role.

They can function as so-called “reform narratives”. The Government can use them to describe a social problem in a broader context and increase the understanding and legitimacy of their goals and measures in an area.

Strategies may also be appropriate in what is known as horizontal governance. When a problem cuts across multiple policy areas, the strategy can be used to steer and coordinate measures, resources and actors from different sectors.

The third example concerns areas where the state has no direct influence, and therefore has to interact with other actors. Here, a strategy can serve as the basis for negotiations and agreements, for example, on how to allocate responsibility and finance the measures.

We conclude that, under certain conditions, strategies can help improve the Government's governance. In order to take advantage of opportunities, the Government should take into account, inter alia, the following aspects when considering strategies.

  • Use strategies for priority issues. If strategies are used too often, they no longer draw attention to the importance of the area.
  • Use the term judiciously. Abstract and sweeping strategies without a clear link to concrete measures do not contribute to governance.
  • Coordinate communication and governance. A strategy may be appropriate for horizontal governance. A prerequisite is that the actors concerned understand their roles and take the assignment seriously.
  • Engage the governmental agencies. In many cases, they have competencies and resources that can be utilised when the Government is formulating strategies. When the agencies participate actively, their understanding and commitment increase.

*The report indicates that there is no difference between how the Government uses the terms strategy and action plan. In order to facilitate the reading, we therefore tend to only use the term strategy for both types of documents.