OVERVIEW AND EVIDENCE BASE
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY THIS PROCESS?
Developing and Using Action Plans is a process of identifying what to do or change and who will do what by when to do it. The process and resulting plan may develop over several meetings within a month, or it can take well over a year before activities are implemented. When groups engage in this process, they are defining goals, objectives, and action statements that are concrete, clear, attainable, and measurable. Subsequently, groups can use these specific goal statements to direct project activities and set priorities. The process of Developing and Using Action Plans defines the effort's purpose as well as the specific tasks or projects defined as necessary by the group to accomplish its shared vision and mission.
Developing and Using Action Plans is a key process to help groups implement targeted action and intervention for change.
HOW IT WORKS
Developing and Using Action Plans enables groups to focus and collaboratively act on priorities to resolve issues, and work towards common goals (Fawcett, Francisco, Paine-Andrews, & Schultz, 2000; Roussos & Fawcett, 2000). Through this process, groups identify real strategies for addressing problems considered important to local collaborators. The process of Developing and Using Action Plans engages community partners in creating the task focus needed to achieve a common set of targeted goals and objectives (Foster-Fishman, Berkowitz, Lounsbury, Jacobson, & Allen, 2001; Israel, Schulz, Parker, & Becker, 1998), and even experience a progression of immediate and subsequent successes that can aid in establishing enthusiasm and project momentum.
Although the functional mechanisms have not been explicitly tested, Developing and Using Action Plans may help groups to:
- Increase rates of community and system change (e.g., Fawcett et al., 1997; Lewis et al., 1999; Paine-Andrews et al, 1996 (Project Freedom); Paine Andrews, Harris, Fawcett, Richter, & Lewis, 1997; Roussos & Fawcett, 2000).
- Heighten enthusiasm among agents of change by clarifying concrete, relevant steps to realize a shared vision (Hogan & Murphey, 2002; Mattessich & Monsey, 1992)
- Increase membership in the partnership (e.g., Bibeau, Howell, Rife, & Taylor, 1996; Kass & Freudenberg, 1997)
- Focus attention, clarify the way to create changes, and take action on specific tasks instead of contrived or ad hoc means for responding to a shared problem or concern (e.g., Gottlieb, Brink, & Gingiss, 1993; Herman, Wolfson, & Forster, 1993; Mattessich & Monsey, 1992; Shortell et al., 2002)
- Define flexible yet strategic tasks in response to community-identified needs and priorities (Sorensen, Emmons, Hunt, & Johnston, 1998), thus increasing participation and intervention effectiveness.
- Develop accountability and ownership of responsibility for facilitating change (e.g., Johnston, Marmet, Coen, Fawcett, & Harris, 1996; Kegler, Steckler, McLeroy, & Malek, 1998)
- Enhance sustainability of accomplishments and adoption of activities by organizations outside the partnership (e.g., Shediac-Rizkallah & Bone, 1998; Bracht et al., 1994; Rohrbach, Johnson, Mansergh, Fishkin, & Neumann, 1997; Kreuter, Lezin, & Young, 2000).
- As with other processes that engage community partners, action planning may lead to internal conflicts or invite potential opposition, especially when (a) time constraints force decisions before relationships have been built (e.g., Goodman, Steckler, Hoover, & Schwartz, 1993) or (b) certain community constituents are overlooked or excluded such as low-income or minority communities (Parker et al., 1998).
EMPIRICAL AND EXPERIENTIAL EVIDENCE
Action planning often constitutes the critical missing link in the ability of partnerships to advance beyond talk to implementation to maintenance of change and effects. Planning is often the most essential but time-consuming task for matching interventions and strategies to community needs and objectives for change (Kreuter, Lezin, & Young, 2000). From 1990-present, the Work Group for Community Health and Development has used a consistent measurement system and naturally-occurring time series designs to identify factors associate with discontinuities in rates of community change (Fawcett, Francisco, Paine-Andrews, & Schultz, 2000; Roussos & Fawcett, 2000). Action planning is consistently associated with accelerated rates of change for a wide variety of community efforts such as substance abuse and adolescent pregnancy.
Similarly, the process of establishing concrete, attainable goals and objectives gave six public/private collaborative projects in a 1983 study a roadmap of specific tasks for action and reporting on progress. Defining success in terms of measurable goals and specific problems, instead of contrived means of cooperation, was a contributing factor to success.The real products of intergovernmental negotiations were the solutions of problems considered important to local actors - such as group-home zoning ordinances, housing units for the mentally ill, the provision of emergency shelter for persons who were homeless, new types of classroom instruction, and increased access to services resulted from careful attention to implementing strategies to address unmet needs (Mattessich & Monsey, 1992).
IMPLICATIONS FOR RESEARCH AND PRACTICE
At present, much of the information available on Developing and Using Action Plans does not explicitly manipulate or test this process and its effects on community change and improvement. Although this process has been identified as a key ingredient for advancing change, there is a need for more systematic evaluations of its implementation and effects. Such research would provide a better understanding of the factors that enable communities to come together and address shared problems and goals.
Some key research questions include: (a) Who needs to be involved in action planning efforts to maximize change efforts (i.e., programs, practices, and policies)? (b) What is the role of local people as agents for or champions of community change and improvement? And (c) Under what conditions (e.g., frequency, intensity) does action planning enhance ongoing action and implementation?
OVERALL RECOMMEDATION FOR PRACTICE
Based on research and experience, we highly recommend Developing and Using Action Plans as a key process to advance community change and improvement.