Public pension plans are getting a black eye from news media outlets. Everyone has heard reports that public pensions are experiencing considerable market volatility and abuse (e.g. pension spiking and inadequate funding). But despite the negative publicity, a majority of public pension plans have continued paying benefits to more than seven million retired public workers. For example, in 2009, the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund GMRF) paid $896.7 million to retirees. It ended 2009 with $22 billion assets.
IMRF, which began operations in 1941 with $5,000 in assets, was created to provide employees of local governments and school districts in Illinois with a sound and efficient system for the payment of retirement, disability, and death benefits. The fund's mission statement is to efficiently and impartially develop, implement, and administer programs, in a prudent manner, that provide income protection to members and their beneficiaries on behalf of participating employers.
IMRF has been successful in meeting its mission. However, fund officials realized that addressing external challenges - such as the volatility of the market and increasing media scrutiny - required a strategic approach. So the fund undertook a formal process to develop its first strategic plan.
ANALYZING THE GOALS
Organizations need to occasionally step back and consider whether their goals are relevant. As the IMRF deputy executive director has said, "You may paint a room perfectly, but if the wrong room was painted, you will have not achieved your goal." Accordingly, IMRF senior management conducted a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) analysis as Well as an analysis of the social, technological, economic, and political (STEP) influences on the fund. The SWOT analysis helped identify the fund's strengths:
* Independence of the board of trustees
* Knowledge and longevity of staff
* Effectiveness of internal controls
* Culture of providing excellent customer service
The fund's weaknesses were also identified:
* Lack of a proactive media plan
* No "brand"
* Lack of a formal comprehensive quality assurance program
* Dependence on key staff
Opportunities were pinpointed:
* Changing the IMRF image through enhanced communication
* Taking the lead in a constructive debate regarding the appropriate role of defined benefit and defined contribution plans
* Improving customer service through continued technological advancements
* Modernize the IMRF benefit structure
And threats were recognized:
* Conversion of defined benefit plans to defined contribution plans
* Participation in IMRF becoming optional for governmental units
* Consolidation of pension systems
* Economic stagnation or inflation
The analysis was reviewed and discussed with the IMRF board of trustees. The board prioritized the issues and identified four strategic goals:
* Advocate preservation of the defined benefit plan
* Create and support the IMRF brand
* Advocate existing autonomy of plan administration and investment authority
* Advocate preservation of the 100 percent funding goal
The board initially questioned the goal of an "IMRF brand." Like most public pension funds, IMRF had previously preferred to remain "under the radar." However, the increasing media coverage about pensions required IMRF to rethink this approach. An "IMRF brand" would be a proactive approach to help members, employers, taxpayers, and the media understand what IMRF is and how it differs from other pension systems.
Success required staff buy-in. IMRF executives wanted to ensure that the internal messages reinforced the external messages. To ensure that all messages were consistent, the fund's executive director held "State of IMRF" town hall meetings to discuss the rationale of the branding campaign and seek the support of the staff. …