While there is no “right way” to develop a strategic plan—the culture and needs of each city or county are unique—to be successful, there are key elements that should always be considered (if you want to see real examples—these are a good place to start). What you choose to include is often determined by what you’re trying to accomplish. Some plans are initiated to address known issues in the community. Some are started because the elected body wants to provide direction. Others are launched because staff needs to understand how to prioritize conflicting needs. Even though the motivation may be different and there are many paths for implementation, to be effective, each strategic plan should identify a destination and map the precise turns needed to reach the intended outcomes—including a clear picture of the ideal future state, near-term priorities, and measurable goals.
We work with over 70 local governments to help them execute their strategic plans and get outstanding results. In the process, we’ve observed the myriad of ways to go about creating them. Some work well, others don’t. To help you succeed, we’ve compiled the essentials for communities that are embarking on the process of strategic planning, so they can get started on the right foot and achieve goals that make a real impact.
Articulate the Value
No matter who initiates the plan, before you get started, you need buy-in from all parties. Make sure everyone involved understands why a strategic plan is necessary and how it will be developed and implemented. It’s essential to communicate your purpose to build trust between staff and elected officials and between the organization and the community. Strategic plans offer a way to gain consensus on long-range organizational goals, provide a framework for prioritizing resource allocation, and establish accountability and transparency in the decision-making process.
Plan to Plan
Strategic planning is highly visible, so you’ll want to make sure you have a detailed design for the strategic planning process itself. Start by identifying information needed to provide context for the strategy discussions; how, when and where you will be soliciting the perspectives of the community, elected officials, partners and staff; and how you will track and report on progress. Determine how the plan will be disseminated and what audiences you need to reach. Be deliberate in how the plan will align with other management tools, such as the budget, agendas and employee performance evaluations.
Start Where You’re At
Most planning processes begin with an environmental scan or situational analysis. Identifying financial and economic trends, known development projects, demographic shifts and other projected impacts are critical for creating a shared understanding of the current circumstances. Other elements might include anticipated legislative impacts from state and federal agencies, potential technology disruptions, or social issues identified in the community. A great approach is a PEST Analysis, identifying the Political, Economic, Social and Technological factors affecting the community.
The most vital element is gathering information about the needs and perspectives of the community. This ranges from analyzing the content of incoming emails and phone calls, public meeting comments and social media feedback all the way up to community-wide resident surveys conducted by outside consultants. Whatever the source, the voice of the resident should be included in the background information provided.
Engage Your Community
Ideally, strategic planning involves a robust public engagement process. When you engage your community with surveys and other types of tools, the results may surprise you. Some communities will use a simple SWOT Analysis (asking for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) or an open-ended online survey of key community issues. Others will generate lists of known issues and ask residents to rank them according to perceived importance. The most comprehensive approaches engage stakeholders in-person at facilitated visioning workshops or town hall meetings. These approaches may take a little extra effort and time, but it helps leaders understand what is important to the community.
Enroll Your Staff
Involve staff in the development of the plan early on by understanding their issues, concerns and ideas for programs and initiatives to address known problems. When people are asked to participate in something, they’ll more likely to buy in to the resulting plan. When your staff sees their ideas have been considered—and maybe even incorporated—they’ll be more invested. Ask questions like, “what are the issues we’re facing and what are the strengths and weaknesses of the organization?”
You’ve identified the need for a strategic plan, analyzed the environment and engaged key stakeholders. The next critical step is to articulate what you’re expecting the plan to accomplish. This is generally done in a workshop with elected officials, where the vision, priorities and goals are teased out.
This often begins with identifying an overarching vision that will serve as the plan’s north star—the direction you want everyone involved to head toward. The vision has to be something people can excited about. It is essential that it be aspirational—something that will be challenging and worthwhile to pursue.
Narrow Your Focus
Next, specific near-term goals or priorities should be identified that guide your direction over the next three to five years. These will be used to prioritize resources and align staff efforts with intended outcomes, allowing the entire organization to contribute to the successful achievement of the overall vision.
All goals must support achieving your vision and be supported by strategies that define successful outcomes. It is important to consider how each goal helps achieve the vision and how each strategy supports each goal. Almost all strategic plans have big, far-reaching goals—like improving public safety. But the rubber hits the road when you get specific with your strategies. Identify specific, measurable, intended outcomes like “reduce crime by 10%.” Your strategies need to be measurable and achievable within a specific timeframe.
Once you’ve defined success by selecting strategies to reach your goals, the specific actions you will take to implement those strategies should be identified. Actions realize the intended outcomes of the plan and include the tasks, milestones, dates and resources needed to achieve them. These are the fundamental building blocks of reaching your vision, the actual steps you take along that journey.
The budget puts resources behind your goals, to make achieving them possible. A former manager I worked with would say that the budget “operationalizes” the strategic plan. Each action requires resources—people, money or materials—to implement. To achieve a goal of having safe neighbourhoods, defined by the outcome of a reduction into auto break-ins, you need to invest in programs that make that possible. One might be a public information campaign, requiring printed materials and time investments from your social media team. Another might be a targeted police patrol, requiring special equipment and staff reassignments in the patrol division. Whatever resources are required to complete the action must be included in the budget.
Implement the Plan and Report on Progress
After the strategic plan is adopted and the budget approved, your team will start to implement the actions contained in the plan. To ensure that they stay on track, dashboards and periodic reports need to be established to inform elected officials and the community on progress. This will reinforce trust in the process and allow the organization to make mid-course corrections when things don’t unfold as predicted.
The key takeaway throughout pre-planning, stakeholder engagement and finalizing your strategic plan is to manage the process and not be managed by it. City Managers need to be steering the ship at all times. Your strategic plan needs to become an engagement tool to manage the entire organization. Having and implementing it effectively is necessary to make the plan happen.