Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world. ‒ JOEL A. BARKER

Vision is about creating public value. It relies on a professional public service that is agile, networked, proactive, responsive, outcomes-driven, and future-oriented. Its capacity draws on two skill sets: (1) Analysis that synthesizes consultation, evidence, and technology in policy advice; and (2) Strategy that leverages risk, foresight, and resilience in problem solving and decision making.

Most people choose with their head but act with their heart. Beyond logic, they desire to contribute to something bigger than themselves. Extraordinary results are possible when real, human emotions inspire meaning and purpose. Change is more likely when people know the facts and why they should care. Resistance to change may indicate that the heart is not fully engaged.

Managing a project or organizational change means clearly answering: “What will be different when we are successful?” Making decisions about changes that are consistent with the vision typically involves multiple stakeholders who fund, implement, and benefit from the work. Constantly reminding people of what will and will not change avoids mission creep, misaligned expectations, and wasted resources.

Changing the world

In 2015, the United Nations adopted Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The 193 countries of the General Assembly committed to achieving 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The development agenda is focused on accelerating progress against ambitious global improvements in diverse socioeconomic issues. Attaining these goals envisions multi-faceted efforts by governments, development agencies, communities, and individual citizens. Successful projects and interventions depend on the right strategies, evidence-based policies, excellent execution, and behavioural change.

Sustainable Development Goals

The SDGs create a new narrative for development and transformation. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries like Canada have responded with work on policy coherence, institutional coordination, evidence-informed policy, and public service competence. Planning considers how the SDGs frame thinking about complex policy challenges. National schools of government embed sustainable development dimensions in training opportunities for public servants.

For example, the United States is revising accreditation standards for graduate programs to include SDG 16 on Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. Korea and Costa Rica are broadening work with outside partners. Spain is establishing a knowledge bank. Ireland is investing in project management as a skill central to SDG implementation. The Netherlands, Dubai, and Bahrain are infusing the SDGs into education curricula.

The OECD’s 2019 Recommendation on Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development offers a comprehensive instrument to help member and partner countries equip policy makers. Its eight principles are organized around three pillars: (1) strategic vision for implementing the 2030 Agenda; (2) institutional and governance mechanisms for addressing policy interactions; and (3) tools for anticipating and assessing policy impacts. The Recommendation’s online guidance and implementation toolkit support public servants in responding to complex, interconnected, global policy challenges.

Lessons for managers

A shared vision starts with agreement on common goals. Strategic focus is riveted when hard budget constraints, core issues, and result commitments are articulated. It is all right to adopt an asymmetrical vision that differentiates the reasons and implications of applying different reforms in different settings. Cloning, as straightforward transfer of “best practice”, is rarely appropriate. Imagination and intuition bridge the gap between concept and practice. Canadian reforms are shifting from a drive to devolve and delegate to the challenge of achieving good governance.

Policy formalizes government commitment to change and stimulates innovation. Over time, policy may also constrain creativity by institutionalizing the status quo through negative reinforcement. The reform community eventually has to escape policy capture to attract wider commitment to a shared vision and agenda for action. The Government of Canada is rethinking the form and function of its policy suite in favour of less regulatory and more collaborative administration.

Whether reframing health as wellness, enhancing quality of life, or stretching social justice outcomes, government must be intentional and thoughtful about change. The path forward must alleviate skepticism, overcome cultural and hierarchical barriers, and protect investments that improve lives. None of this is possible without transformational leaders who shortlist priorities and embrace directional targets. Trying for too many unattainable goals obfuscates the reality of the vision.