Leonard’s Note on Public Sector Strategy-Building

… a core concept in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107

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Concept description

In May 2002, Herman B Leonard circulated “A Short Note on Public Sector Strategy-Building” (pdf on right and reference below) that outlined a framework for strategic analysis that had been widely taught in Kennedy School courses and executive programs. The framework gives specific content to the notion of strategy in public management (as contrasted with tactics or operational actions).

Unit of analysis and actor

Leonard says one must be clear about:

  1. The unit of analysis. The framework can be applied to the analysis of essentially any contemplated or ongoing action, program, initiative, or venture.
  2. The actor or decision-maker from whose perspective we are carrying out the analysis. The framework can be applied to build strategy from essentially any chosen perspective. What is important is that we be clear at the outset which perspective it is being used for, since the analysis may differ depending on whose strategy we are trying to build.
The Value, Capacity, and Support Model

The Value, Capacity, and Support Model

The value, capacity, and support model

Leonard then sets out three questions that one should ask, leading to strategic domains represented in a Venn diagram:

  1. Do we have the capacity do carry out this program? A natural first question is to inquire about whether the existing capacity of the organization is adequate to carry out the program that is being analyzed. By capacity, we include: people; money; skills; authority; space; knowledge; managerial infrastructure; and any other physical or intellectual resources necessary to carry out the program.
  2. Do we have the support of the people or organizations whose support (or opposition) to this program is relevant to our carrying it forward? A second natural question in defining the strategic environment of a program in democratic societies is whether the program either is or would (without much advocacy) be supported, on balance (taking into account any likely or known opposition), by the constituencies whose support is relevant to it. Obviously, life is much simpler for the would-be program implementers if such support is already in place; if it is not, then part of the strategic work will lie in developing the political support (wherever it is relevant – which may be either inside or outside the organization, inside other agencies, or in interest groups and the public at large). From the point of view of developing our strategic analysis of the prospective program, the utility of this question is simply that figuring out whether or not a major advocacy task is needed is crucial to the development of an accurate and comprehensive – that is, strategic – understanding and assessment of the challenge that lies ahead.
  3. Would the operation of this action, program, or initiative create (net) public value? This question calls for judgment – indeed, values-based, moral judgment. The framework identifies this as a central strategic question – again, because what actions would be appropriate by a public official with regard to a particular program will depend on whether the official believes that the program will, on balance, serve the public’s interests.
The dynamics of strategic intervention

The capacity, support, and value model illustrated in the diagram above provides a guide to inquiry in a dynamic setting. Leonard says:

“The challenge is not simply to understand where a given program may be in the strategic domain – but, through a guided thought process taking account of where it is, to determine a set of actions and interventions that will reliably improve the strategic setting of the program. [The diagram] should not be thought of as a permanent description – rather, it is one frame in a moving picture. The challenge is, by understanding enough about where we are today, to design actions that will make the picture that appears tomorrow, or next month, or next year, a better one. The set of actions designed to create these improvements is the strategy – a coordinated series of actions – derived from the strategic analysis carried out through applying the analytical framework as a starting point in the analysis [emphasis added].

Thus, the interpretation of the strategic or entrepreneurial public official’s role and task is to act so as to produce greater overlap between value, capacity, and support. Capacity and support can be deliberately moved, and the strategy should include actions and interventions that are designed to move capacity and support in the direction where the public official believes that additional public value can be produced. The location of public value, by contrast, cannot deliberately be moved – it may move, of its own accord, over time (as new opportunities or problems arise), at any given moment it simply is where it is. The challenge is that we must find it – because no one knows precisely and with assurance exactly where it is. At any given moment, the public official has only his or her own (validly based, we hope) best judgment about where it is located. The strategy should, therefore, include actions that will allow greater clarity and reliability in the determination of where public value can be created. Thus, the objective in developing a coherent strategy, based on our current analysis of the location of value, capacity, and support, is to combine actions that will result in:

  1. moving capacity(/ies) toward the public official’s current validly-based best estimate of where public value lies;
  2. moving support toward the current best estimate of where public value lies; and
  3. improving the accuracy and reliability of the estimate of where public value lies, allowing for any changes that may take place in its actual location (as needs, wants, problems and opportunities arise and/or change) [emphasis added].

Under the framework presented here, we might describe these as the three central strategic responsibilities of the public official.”

Types of strategic error

Leonard notes that one can make errors in any part of this strategic analysis. First, there are three (potentially fatal) errors of diagnosis:

  • incorrectly assuming or calculating that a given program or action lies within the existing capacities of the organization, when in fact it does not;
  • incorrectly assuming or calculating that a program or action enjoys our would enjoy the support of the relevant constituencies (on balance, taking into account any opposition), when in fact it does or would not; and
  • incorrectly projecting that a given program or action would create public value, when indeed it would not.

Additionally, the strategist can make errors of prediction, incorrectly assessing how various interventions are likely to move capacity or support or provide a more accurate assessment of the location of public value.


Herman B Leonard (2002), A Short Note on Public Sector Strategy-Building, Harvard University, uploaded to the Atlas on 28 December 2015 at http://www.atlas101.ca/pm/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Leonard-Note-on-Strategy-2002.pdf from at http://www.google.ca/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CB0QFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fisites.harvard.edu%2Ffs%2Fdocs%2Ficb.topic849455.files%2FStrategic%2520Planning%2FLeonardNote%2520on%2520Strategy%25202006%252001%252016.doc&ei=nnx0VcSAO8fYsAWZhYHYDw&usg=AFQjCNHbi1foPMxk0HLm_nspLPhf_GLZmA&sig2=edNWSX_AzknM144PtXhvCw, accessed 7 June 2015.

Atlas topic and subject

Strategic Management in the Public Sector (core topic) in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 12 September 2017.