In October I had the privilege of going to Ankara for a week to examine the quality of stakeholder engagement in strategic planning in Turkish public policy making. The project is carried out in cooperation with TEPAV (Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey) and the Turkish State Planning Organisation (SPO).

Turkey is a candidate country for EU membership and this project is part of Turkey’s EU accession negotiations. Public policy is being reformed and one of the core parts of the pre-accession priorities is institution building. Many elements of public sector reform have been introduced by the public financial management and control law (PFMC) of 2003. One of the requirements set out in the law is that public institutions need to prepare strategic plans and implement performance budgeting, starting from 2006. Currently the production of strategic plans is in full swing. Public institutions have set up strategy development units and the first generation of strategic plans has been prepared, of which a few have been implemented. In the next few years strategic plans are expected to be central to policy making.

A fundamental aspect of the strategic planning process is the requirement for institutions to prepare their strategic plans in a participatory way. Involve has been asked to look at current practice and suggest changes and improvements. During my week in Ankara I spoke to a wide range of people, both inside and outside government ranging from senior managers of strategy units to operational level staff. Armed with an interview schedule and interpreter I tried to understand how internal and external stakeholders are engaged in these processes. Getting a glimpse of how these processes are being run outside the UK, in a context where participation is fairly new is fascinating, as is seeing such different approaches to strategic planning and engagement between – and even within – institutions. Unsurprisingly, the recent nature of strategic planning and specifically participation in these processes is still very noticeable.

One thing that particularly surfaced for me doing this research was the importance of having a clear purpose. In strategic planning a clear focus on the ‘why’ is at least as important as the ‘how’ as Sean Lusk (head of the National School of Government’s strategy team) says in his article , “Must the urgent always be the enemy of the important? Why strategy matters now more than ever“.

When thinking about participation in strategic planning, the ‘participation’ element should be approached in the same vein. Working in the field of public engagement this has become nothing less than a mantra, sometimes to the point that it feels like a truism… Yet, it can’t be emphasised enough: starting with a clear purpose (the ‘why’) of why you’re engaging is crucial, regardless of whether or not there is a statutory requirement. In the Nine Principles for deliberative engagement Involve and Consumer Focus provided a helpful formula that gives practical steps for ensuring an engagement exercise is tailored to the specific circumstances. In my view, developing a shared understanding of why a strategic plan is beneficial and why engaging stakeholders is useful in creating ownership of the plan is critical in moving forward its implementation.

In the case of Turkey, we have to keep in mind that participatory strategic planning is still in its early stages and skills and capacity need to be built. An institutional culture of engagement has yet to grow, both in the strategic management process as well as in wider policy making. No doubt it will be challenging to change institutional cultures to make engagement part of the fabric of how an organisation works. In the UK for example, the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement is doing work around embedding public engagement in higher education institutions. They set out some of the challenges in bringing about culture change and how this can be supported effectively in their recent online resource.

Changing an organisational culture is a long and slow process, let alone changing a culture of a whole sector. Pessimists could argue that a culture of engagement will never become reality in Turkey. I’d argue there certainly is scope for improving and developing the participatory approach to strategic planning and wider policy development. It is still early days, and identifying and – more importantly – acknowledging the benefits of engagement will take time. However, it is promising to see that the requirements for participatory strategic planning may have sparked interest in widening participation in places as far apart as London and Ankara.

Image (Creative Commons): posterize