A down & dirty primer on strategic planning

Say the words "strategic planning" and the eyes of many defense attorneys will immediately glaze over.  Yet having a concrete plan, measuring progress, and being able to prove that progress has occurred are all critical in convincing budgeting bodies and policy-makers that we as public defense attorneys are effective and accountable.  So, here we provide some simplified steps and instructions for developing a strategic plan for your public defense system or agency.  You may want to use our basic Strategic Planning Matrix as you work your way through each step.


Strategic planning begins with the adoption of a Mission statement.  The Mission statement is the stated purpose for an organization's existence.  It tells you why everyone in your agency comes to work every day.  A sample mission statement for a public defense agency might read:

"To improve the criminal justice system and the quality of criminal defense services provided to individuals through a community-based delivery system; ensure equal justice for all citizens without regard to race, color, religion, age, sex, national origin, political affiliation or disability; guarantee the respect for personal rights of individuals charged with criminal or delinquent acts; and, uphold the highest ethical standards of the legal profession."


The next step is to develop the Vision of the organization.  The Vision statement identifies the measures by which your agency will know when it has achieved its Mission.  This means breaking down the Mission statement into its component parts and then developing example descriptions of each component part that would be present if the Mission had been achieved.  Using our sample Mission statement above, the component parts might then be:

-  Quality criminal defense services provided to individuals

-  Community-based delivery system

-  Equal justice for all citizens

-  Highest ethical standards of the legal profession upheld

-  Respect for personal lrights of individuals charged with offenses guaranteed

-  Criminal justice system improved

In developing your agency's Vision, you want to first answer the question of what your public defense system will be, for each component, when it is perfect (when you have achieved your Mission).  Each individual in your agency probably knows what their own answer is to that question, but in order to work together as a group, you need to know what everyone thinks and you need to reach agreement on the same answers.  So start by thinking big; imagine that everything is possible.  Get everyone's best ideas out on the table.  Let every person describe what your system will be, for each component, when that component is perfect.  Finally, condense these into a small number of sentences that everyone can agree on and that, taken together, encapsulate successful completion of the Mission.

Goals (Long-Term Strategies)

Once a Vision statement is adopted, then you need to prepare Goals (or Long-Term Strategies).  Determine the time period for which you desire to make a strategic plan.  You might try a 3- or 5-year strategic planning period, or maybe you want a strategic planning period that mirrors your budget cycle.  The Goals are the specific things that will have been achieved at the end of your chosen strategic planning period and which will move your agency closer toward your Vision.  Since your Vision tells you what your public defense system looks like when it is perfect, your Goals tell you what incremental achievements you will have along the way toward perfection.

In establishing Goals, it is important to consider all of the categories and communities that make up your agency and its work and to establish Goals in each of these categories.  You may decide that you do not need all of these categories or that you do not want to set Goals during this time period in each of these categories, but you need to think about them so that you can make those decisions.  The categories are:

I.    Resources.  The budget, staff, and materials available to carry out the organization's work.

II.   Institutional/Infrastructure Development.  The equipment and facilties available to be used by the organization.

III.  Programs.  The substantive work done by the organization.

IV.  Relationships.  The relationships that the organization has with people and other organizations, both within and outside of the organization.

V.   Status.  How the organization is regarded by others outside of the organization.

VI.  Governance.  The work done and procedures of the organization's governing bodies.

You should develop measurable Goals in each of these six categories, to be achieved within the time period of the plan, that will bring you closer to your Vision.  Sample Goals for each of these categories might include:

Resources:  Agency has a budget of $xxxxx.  Agency has a staff of 27.  Agency has 1 attorney for every 150 felony cases each year.  Agency has 1 social worker for every 4 attorneys.

Institutional/Infrastructure Development:  Agency has a fully computerized and networked caseload management system.  Agency has toll-free telephone access between all indigent defense attorneys and clients held in jails/prisons.  Agency has confidential attorney-client meeting rooms in every courthouse in our jurisdiction.

Programs: Agency provides a 3-week new attorney training program to every attorney hired before that attorney represents a client.  Agency conducts collaborative team-defense case planning monthly in 20% of felony cases.  Agency conducts independent defense investigation in every case.

Relationships:  Agency holds a seat on all boards/committees within the jurisdiction involving criminal justice.  Agency carries out a mentoring succession plan matching present leaders in every leadership position with potential replacements to prepare them to take command.

Status:  Agency is the most accurate source of criminal case statistics in the jurisdiction.  Agency is the most respected criminal defense CLE provider in the jurisdiction.  Every agency attorney views their primary allegiance as being to each individual client.

Governance:  Agency's board has working committees on collateral consequences, mental health, and community mapping, that meet monthly.  Agency has adopted uniform jurisdiction-wide standards on eligibility to receive appointed counsel, conflicts, and defense attorney participation in treatment courts.

TOWS/SWOT Analysis

Your agency may identify a large number of Goals that it can pursue over the next few years, any one and all of which would bring the organization nearer to its Vision.  But once you have identified all of your possible Goals, it will be necessary to choose among them, taking into account the time and resources that you presently have available and that you anticipate will be available during the time period of the strategic plan.

This is often done through an Environmental Scan or a TOWS/SWOT Analysis.  This analysis answers the questions of what might prevent your organization from achieving its Goals and what can be done to overcome that.  The organization should identify its internal strengths and weaknesses and the threats and opportunities from outside of the organization.  This will aid in focusing on the critical achievements that must occur and the critical failures that must be prevented.

The purpose of this type of analysis is to get a better understanding of the strategic choices you face and how to prioritize them.  It helps you answer the questions of how you:

Make the most of your strengths? = S

Circumvent your weaknesses? = W

Capitalize on your opportunities? = O

Manage your threats? = T

Threats and Opportunities are part of your External Environment, i.e. things that are outside of your agency.  The External Environment includes: the people  you serve, their status, their needs (in short, your clients); and all of the environments in which you operate, including economic, political, social, and technological, affected by collaborators and competitors, supporters and detractors, judges and prosecutors and law enforcement, legislators and executive, taxpayers, community leaders, victim families and client families, academia and bar associations.  Threats are those things in the External Environment that threaten your ability to achieve your Vision.  Opportunities are those things in the External Environment that enhance your ability to achieve your Vision.

Weaknesses and Strengths are part of your Internal Environment, i.e. things that are inside of your agency.  The Internal Environment includes: Inputs (financial and human resources); Processes (operating methods and strategies); Outputs (results and outcomes presently being achieved, such as how clients and public defense attorneys view the representation being provided); Critical Success Factors (existing factors necessary to the future and continued success of the agency, or those factors the absence of which would cripple your agency).  Weaknesses are those things your agency lacks that weaken  your ability to achieve your Vision.  Strengths are those things your agency has that strengthen your ability to achieve your Vision.

There are many ways to accomplish a TOWS/SWOT Analysis.  Organizations that are doing this for the first time may choose to simply conduct a self-assessment by the agency's governing body and staff, or hold informal group discussions with your funders, clients, attorneys, and other criminal justice stakeholders.  More mature organizations may conduct community needs assessments, through interviews, focus groups, and surveys.  Agencies with greater financial resources may hire a consultant to do this for you.

Strategies (Short-Term Strategies)

Once the Goals are firmly established, then each department within your agency should plan the short-term Strategies it will carry out to achieve each Goal.   These are the key bite-size steps that you will take between now and the end of the time period to get from where you are now to achievement of each Goal.  Establishing short-term Strategies allows the organization to make a time-line for the accomplishment of tasks, identify the people and resources necessary to carry out those tasks, and implement a work plan with built-in benchmarks and accountability to keep track of progress.

Most, if not all, of the Goals of an organization will require coordinated work by many of the organization's departments.  Every department needs to write out the step-by-step Strategies it will take to achieve each Goal.  Using our sample, if a Resource Goal was "Agency has 1 social worker for every 4 attorneys,"  then several departments might be involved in achieving that goal.  Your budget department might have to work up a fiscal assessment of the funding needed to hire and pay the necessary number of social workers.  Your human resources department might have to determine how many line attorneys there are in the jurisdiction.  Your training department might have to train attorneys on how to use social workers in the defense of their clients and vice versa.  Your governing body might promulgate standards regarding use of sentencing alternatives to incarceration. 

Take each of the Goals one at a time.  Each department will devise the Strategies it will take to achieve that Goal between now and the end of the planning period.  For each Strategy, you will need to designate the human being who is responsible for seeing that the step is completed.  And you will need to decide when you will begin and complete each Strategy.

Implementation Tracking

The Goals and Strategies you develop provide the work plan for your agency over the time period you have chosen.  When all of the Strategies from every department and for every Goal are combined, you will need to adjust to ensure that there are not any gaps or missing Strategies to achieve each Goal.  You will need to adjust beginning and ending dates for each Strategy, so that they proceed seamlessly from department to department.  You may also need to reconsider who will be responsible for work, so that you don't overload a single individual or department with work that must all happen at the same time.

We provide here a basic Strategic Plan Implementation Spreadsheet that you can use to assess your overall Strategic Plan, make necessary adjustments, and then chart your progress.  You can sort the spreadsheet by Goal, in order to measure progress in achieving each Goal.  You can sort by Department, so that each department in your agency can know exactly what their responsibilities are and can plan for and control their workflow.


There are many organizations and individuals who provide assistance with and consulting in Strategic Planning and Work Plan Implementation.  If your agency can afford to hire expert assistance, we encourage you to do so.  But, if you are doing the best you can with limited resources, we hope this will prove helpful to you as a basic guide to Strategic Planning for your agency.

Author/Organization: Phyllis E. Mann
Publication Date: 03/31/2010