Peter J Wilcoxen > MAX 401 Civic Engagement Action Plan Workshop

Components of Action Plans


Action plans bring together specific elements of three sets: (1) a broad social problemarea; (2) resources available in the community; and (3) policies or actions that could be taken to address the problem. In the figure below, these sets are indicated by three rectangles labeled Problem, Resources and Actions. Ideally, the plan addresses a specific, concrete problem for specific people (from subset Specific); engages a particular community resource–usually an organization or government official–to help on an ongoing basis (from subset Identified); and employs an action that research has shown to work (from subset Tested).

Focusing in on a specific problem

The hallmark of a broad social problem is that a rigorous argument can be made that some set of actors in the community has a practical or moral responsibility to divert resources from other uses to addressing the problem.

A critical step in developing a feasible action plan is narrowing down the broad social problem (e.g., poverty) to a specific problem in a given location (e.g., too few low income people in Syracuse file for the earned income tax credit). As a rule of thumb, the specific problem has been defined appropriately when it is possible to answer, at least approximately, all of the following questions: Where are the people affected by it? How many of them are there? What are their socioeconomic characteristics? How severely are they affected?

Standard action plan

When all goes well, the subsets overlap as shown below and the action plan is an element in the intersection shown by area A. A plan with these characteristics is great: a strong ethical argument can be made for action, a clearly-defined group will be affected, an identified community resource is prepared to address the problem, and the proposed action is known to work.

Experimental action

If a specific problem and community resource are identified but there is no action with a well-established track record, the situation will look as shown below. In this case, the action plan could be to carry out an experiment: a trial implementation of a proposed but untested action. However, it will be necessary to make a convincing argument for spending significant resources on an action that might not work.

New organization or individual action

If there is a specific problem and a known, effective action, but no actor in the community willing to undertake it on a long term basis, the situation will look as shown below. In this situation, the plan might be for the individual to carry out the action, or it may be to design and launch a new organization.

When carried out by an individual, the plan would often draw on resources provided on a one-time basis by organizations in the community but in contrast with the previous plans, the organizations are not committed to carrying out the plan in the future. The downside of individual actions is that they are not sustainable.

Unworkable situations

Plans that don’t fit into one of the categories above are usually unworkable. As a general rule, an action plan must: (1) address a compelling social problem; (2) focus on a specific, identifiable population; and (3) have either a community partner, or an action with a proven track record, or both. It’s also necessary for the plan to have a clear action that helps solve the problem and is not just further research.

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Peter J Wilcoxen, The Maxwell School, Syracuse University
Revised 09/02/2021