Here’s what you need to know to get started with government planning.
If there's anything we've learned from working with local governments, it's that you'll do whatever it takes to help your community grow and thrive. We want to make it as easy as possible for you to balance the needs of all your community stakeholders with the realities of time and financial constraints. That’s why we’ve created this comprehensive guide to government planning—to provide both practical guidance and inspiration that will set you on the right path. Keep reading to find out about:
We’ll also explain why our strategy reporting software, ClearPoint, is a valuable tool for strategy planning and execution, and what makes it a great fit for governments in particular. Let’s dive in!
All successful organizations plan—and sometimes get paralyzed by over-planning. Your city likely has a lot of plans (urban planning,capital improvements, infrastructure, community health, and other areas) on top of department plans. Sometimes it is tough to see how it will all fit together.
A government strategic plan is a city’s overall, long-term vision for the future. It’s a blueprint of the city’s goals, planned projects to achieve those goals, and metrics to determine success.
Strategic plans chart the course for a city over a three- to five-year period, at the end of which the plans should be reevaluated and refreshed. Once a plan is developed, it is rolled out to city departments to execute their individual responsibilities.
Municipal leaders (the city council, mayor, city manager, etc.) drive the process of creating a local government strategic plan, starting with gathering input from key staff members and citizens. The strategy and budget offices also take an active role in the planning process.
The point of a strategic plan is to get everyone rowing in the same direction, and that requires having a shared vision and common goals. Those essentials will be impossible to establish without open communication and buy-in.
So before you even think about developing the components in the list below, make sure everyone is on board with your strategy efforts. Include your staff, managers and directors, city council, and citizens from the start, and engage them as much as possible to ensure your plan focuses on the right initiatives. Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to delve into the five main elements of government planning.
Keep in mind that organizations might call these components by different names—and that’s just fine. Figure out what terminology works best for your organization and go with it. Calling something a “goal” or a “strategic priority” doesn’t matter as long as the meaning behind it is there.
Your city’s mission statement is the foundation of the plan; it shows what you do for the city, community, and citizens. This is a step that some people don’t take seriously—but this is the main building block that will keep you focused from this point forward.
We recommend that you look around at other municipalities you respect or admire and find some things you really like from them. Then take those components and some of your own, and come together with your staff and/or citizens to see if any or all of those components echo what they want to see.
Finally, with all of this information in mind, you can finalize your core mission, which should be a mix of some things your municipality is now and some things you want to become in the future. Everything else in your city’s strategic plan will need to tie back to this, so be sure it isn’t too specific, and try to keep it concise.
Your vision statement builds on the mission by stating what you are hoping to achieve in the future in order to reach your mission—so this is where you can start getting a little more specific.
Try to take a similar approach to crafting the vision statement as you did for the core mission. Look at other vision statements you’ve seen and reach out to your staff and citizens. Determine where you want to be in 3-5 years (these should be the more practical goals) and also where you want to be 10-20 years in the future (these should be more audacious goals). This is where things can get exciting and fun. Some citizens will propose some far-fetched ideas—say, they’ll want to host the Olympics! That may not actually happen, but it’s neat to have your citizens thinking this way.
Certain goals should be focused on above all others. During this step, pick five or six priorities that, if accomplished, will guarantee that you execute your strategy. (These can be called “strategic priorities,” “goals,” or “objectives.”) You’ll want to have only 5-7 strategic priorities which will allow you to focus on achieving your core mission statement and vision. The following are often considered strategic priorities for municipalities:
Again, you’ll want to step back and be sure to involve both your citizens and your staff at every level of this process. Be sure to think about what things are really going to help you achieve this vision.
While your city is unique in many ways, it has many similarities to other municipalities due to size or proximity. Reaching out to other cities about how they track their data or perform similar strategic tasks is a great way to get ideas. A neighboring city may have an excellent suggestion on how to set targets for your levels of performance in your strategic plan. To get started, consider the following:
Everyone—from employees to citizens—needs to understand how they fit into the city’s strategic plan. If you’ve involved your staff and citizens in steps 1-3, this fourth step is so much easier.
First, understand that people need to be able to explain your strategic plan back to you in very simple terms to ensure its effectiveness. A really good example of this comes from a STAT meeting I recently sat in on. I saw that someone from the fire department—who wasn’t the fire chief—was presenting. He was third or fourth in command. He explained how the department fit within the strategic plan of the city in very simple terms, demonstrating a strong knowledge of the subject.
Altogether, this process should be extremely transparent. Consider weight loss for a moment: If one of your goals is to lose 20 pounds, it’s a great idea to tell some people about that plan, so they can keep you honest. The same is true for a city strategic plan. You should be able to put it out there and express where you want to go and what you want to do—this acts as an additional motivator and a source of accountability.
Make sure you're sharing your strategic plan externally as well as internally. Citizens, city council members, and elected officials all want to know how you’re actually doing with your strategic plan. A publicly available dashboard is one of the best ways to answer their questions!
A dashboard allows you to display your municipal plan metrics and provides explanations of what you’re doing to improve in areas that need it.
Note that this is very different from an open data platform that provides online access to raw data. While an open data platform may appear to be the “most transparent” way to share data at first look, it is actually very inconvenient for your citizens. They aren’t interested in parsing through hundreds of pages of raw data—they just want an organized, simplified view of whether or not you’re reaching your goals and how you’re working to achieve them. A dashboard meets this requirement straight on.
Learn more about why you should create a dashboard—and what you should include—in this article. You can also reference the excellent community dashboard the City of Fort Collins, Colorado has created.
You’ll need to establish numerical goals to know if you are on track to reach your goals. To do this, it’s important to select the right key performance indicators (KPIs) that will inform your priorities and goals directly.
The KPI selection process is a very important one—but in the first year or so, you may not have the right ones. For example, if you notice that your KPIs are all green, but your goals and priorities aren’t improving, you may need to go back to the drawing board with your KPIs. You could have the wrong measures, or the targets may not be aggressive enough.
Typically, when you set priorities, you’ll set them for the municipality as a whole. Some organizations will take the additional step of setting up a scorecard for each department right off the bat, and others will expand into departmental scorecards after some experience at the city level. The department's unique priorities should be represented, but be sure that there are elements that tie back to the city level to ensure clear alignment.
Make sure you have a good way to track your data and hold your teammates accountable.
Having a local government strategic plan is one thing—but tracking the data that goes into that plan is another thing entirely. Tracking your data effectively allows you to better report on your strategic process. Unfortunately, many organizations end up in the never-ending cycle of manually adding data. This is not only extremely inefficient and tedious, but manually adding data is also prone to human error and mistakes. In order to cut out these issues, consider the following:
For strategic planning to work, the strategies of all departments must be aligned with the top-level mission and direction. This requires creating direct links between your city’s overall strategic goals and your departments’ work plans.
A work plan is a department’s operational plan (sometimes referred to as a department business plan). Generally speaking, it’s more tactical and operational in nature than the high-level government strategic plan. The work plan typically covers only 1-2 years of the strategic plan, and is linked to the budget directly, so it can be more concrete and restrictive than the strategic plan.
Ideally, city divisions and departments would have formal strategic plans in place, but most operate off their work plans and the planning process around them. A good work plan outlines each department’s responsibilities in relation to the strategic plan, including:
Depending on the size of a city’s division, it might be necessary to break down a work plan by department, service area, or program. If “sub-work plans” are created, they must roll up to the department’s larger work plan, which will then roll up to the overarching government strategic plan. It’s a cascading effect and all plans should link to each other.
It’s important for the work plan to align with the city-wide strategic plan. For example, if the city has a larger goal to develop transit infrastructure that supports population growth, the Public Works division will have more granular goals and metrics. It might have goals around traffic speed during rush hour and metrics related to road maintenance.
This city-wide alignment may sound difficult, but it’s certainly not impossible. By learning about each part of the process, you’ll be better equipped to institute good governance at every level.
Work plans and strategic plans should inform one another, but do not have to be the same.
In other words, don’t fall into the trap of focusing on operational and tactical items during the government strategic planning process. Your strategic plan should include items that are top-level, forward-looking priorities. Operational initiatives and goals should be reserved for department work plans.
Let’s say a city wants to address a rise in criminal activity. The city’s strategic plan and the police force’s work plan may both have a goal around lowering the crime rate, but the work plan will include hard targets and details, while the strategic plan will have a broader goal to improve community safety.
Having both a strategic plan and work plans will help you create alignment across the city, as well as within departments. This also helps you gain buy-in from employees because they can see how their role and department connects to the larger, long-term vision.
A last word of advice is to be methodical with the government strategic planning process. Don’t try to create work plans and strategic plans at the same time as it will cause an overload of change management issues. Choose one to focus on first and you’ll be more successful. Most organizations build a strategic plan and then ask departments to align their key activities to this plan.
Cities have started to adopt the same strategic planning process as the private sector over the last few years. With tightened budgets, it’s critical that city governments can accomplish as much as possible with fewer resources. Here are four government strategic plan examples you can learn from:
What’s special about the City of Germantown’s strategic planning process is its corporate-style approach. This Tennessee city views citizens as customers and city services as “goods” provided to their customers, which keeps the focus on citizen priorities. For example, instead of saying, “We need a new park,” the city takes the attitude of, “The citizens need a place to connect, exercise, and enjoy the outdoors.” Using outcomes as a starting point, Germantown creates its priorities and shapes its strategy.
City leaders did an excellent job organizing citizen focus groups as part of the “Germantown Forward 2030” vision plan. They formed an internal, 30-person steering committee (consisting of staff from across departments) to gather citizen input, assembled a citizen task force, and made sure planning stayed on track.
Their dedication to strategy execution paid off. Not only did it benefit the citizens of Germantown, but the municipality won an Excellence Award from the esteemed Tennessee Center for Performance Excellence in 2017. In 2019, the city of Germantown also won the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, an honor reserved for U.S. organizations that demonstrate unceasing drive for “radical innovation, thoughtful leadership, and administrative improvement.”
Continue Reading: City of Germantown: Building, Implementing, and Executing a Strategic Plan
The City of Fort Collins, Colorado, provides a great example of how to perfect the strategic planning process for your government over time. The city started with a large number of measures that were reviewed by an equally large group of staff. It then refined the planning process until only the most important key metrics were reviewed by the right stakeholders. From there, the focus shifted toward examining the key outcomes, strategic objectives, and initiatives that drove progress on the key metrics. City leaders went through several iterations to get the plan just right, realizing the process was an evolution.
One particularly successful tactic Fort Collins used was to incorporate their departments into the planning process. Core strategic planning team members met regularly with department heads to get feedback and make adjustments to the plan, ensuring it worked for everyone involved. The result? The city has strong buy-in across the organization and everyone understands how their departments contribute to Fort Collins’ long-term goals. This high-touch, personal approach of involving every department in the process was integral to Fort Collins’ success.
If you’re working through your own local government strategic planning process, here’s an inside look at how Fort Collins put together their internal team:
First, they put together a steering committee for the strategy that included the:
This steering committee then decided on seven focus areas for the city to include in their strategic plan. They selected a chairperson for each of their focus areas and then integrated a cross-sectional self-nomination process to fill each focus area team. For example, anyone in the municipality could nominate themselves to serve on the team for the focus area titled “Safe Community.” This is a unique approach, as other municipalities may only take individuals who serve in police or fire departments. Letting anyone participate ensures that the groups are focused and experienced but also helps individuals from other departments get a sense of what is going on across the municipality.
When budgeting is linked to strategy, the budgeting process runs much more smoothly. The individuals in Fort Collins create their municipal budgets every other year, on even years, and structure their reporting calendar therein. At the end of non-budgeting years, those involved send out a citizen survey and set up events to gather feedback from the community. This information is brought back to the steering committee and the chairs of the focus areas, who disseminate the feedback throughout the organization.
They also hold city council elections on odd years and host a city council retreat directly following the elections. This retreat is used as a time to discuss issues facing the municipality and how resources in the next budgeting cycle may be allocated. This information is passed along to the steering committee. Then at the beginning of the budgeting year, the steering committee presents the strategic plan to the council, who then approves the plan so the city can budget accordingly.
Continue Reading: Achieving the Fort Collins Vision Through Effective Performance Review
To activate its ambitious, community-driven vision plan, the City of Fort Lauderdale, Florida has embarked on a sweeping new program of strategy management. In the process, the city has embraced performance measurement with equal parts discipline, dedication, and passion.
One of the biggest takeaways from Fort Lauderdale is how the city prioritized gathering citizen input. The vision plan, two and a half years in the making, was systematically developed through extensive community outreach: interviews, open houses, telephone town halls, and a social website. In total, the city collected 1,562 ideas from highly invested neighbors. The outreach efforts and feedback helped create a very citizen-centric vision plan. Fort Lauderdale is now confident that its priorities are based on what’s important to its citizens.
Fort Lauderdale tackled the issues and challenges of getting citizen input and engagement head-on with three innovative ideas:
Continue Reading: From Vision To Action: Fort Lauderdale’s Strategy Management Journey
The City of Durham, North Carolina, engaged in two rounds of their performance management execution program. The first focused on developing a strategic plan that emphasized data-driven decision-making and advanced the city’s goal of transparent, civic-minded government. Durham’s fervent attention to performance measurement and monitoring helped the city align its spending and activities with strategic priorities. This alignment helped them partner in unprecedented ways with Durham County.
Yet, there was no central ownership or organized way to hold users accountable for keeping strategic performance data up to date, necessitating another round of performance management execution. For this second phase, Durham was very deliberate about assigning roles and responsibilities. The city also formed an Office of Performance and Innovation to spearhead the strategic planning process and help employees understand why performance is so important to the government’s success.
Continue Reading: City of Durham: Strategy Refresh & Organization Buy-In
Based on our experience as strategy management experts and our work with local governments, here are some strategic planning tips that will help you make the most of your efforts.
This could be your staff and/or your citizens. If you go through the whole process without their input and then your staff or citizens don’t agree, you’ve created a headache for yourself. Being open and inclusive during the strategic planning process for your government is vital to its success.
Feel free to set aggressive goals, but keep a realistic mindset. Again, if one of your citizens suggests hosting the Olympics in ten years, you should be thrilled with their enthusiasm—but still aware that this may not be something that will actually happen.
Sometimes organizations are tempted to create comfortable strategic plans, so they don’t fall short of their goals—but this is a mistake. Great strategic plans have a mix of things the municipality does really well and things it doesn’t do well. This is also important, so your citizens can see you have a good perspective on what is going well and what isn’t going well within the community.
On the other side of the coin, you should be sure to include several things that your organization does well in your strategic plan! Even if your municipality excels in a particular area already, there’s always room for improvement.
One of the great things about the municipal space is that most cities will share a lot of information. If you see a municipality with a really great local government strategic plan, don’t be afraid to reach out to them and learn from what they’re doing. Putting yourself on an island will only hurt your municipality.
There will be times that are both difficult and frustrating when you’re leading and implementing something this large. But once you get things up and running, it will pay off—so just keep going!
As part of that focus, don’t be afraid to make changes to your planning process when you need to. If something isn’t working, adjust it and keep going. (Remember how Fort Collins executed multiple iterations of its process.) Don’t abandon your strategy—focus on changing it for the better.
Don’t lose sight of your long-term goals by letting your strategic plan slide into operational tasks. Scope creep can infect the strategic plan for your department or entire organization—you might notice that you’re tracking certain measures just because it’s easy or someone has asked you to...but with no tie to strategy. Avoid the creep by periodically reviewing your strategic plan to be sure the right goals are in place and all the projects you’re undertaking and measures you’re tracking directly align to those goals.
Once you’ve created your strategic plan, you can’t leave it alone to gather dust. Set expectations for what information needs to be updated, and how often you will report on your progress, in addition to getting that all-important buy-in and making sure everyone understands why strategic planning in government organizations is so important.
The most important thing is to just get started! Remember, you don’t have to be a master at strategic planning, and the process will never be entirely perfect. Even cities that win awards for their strategic management weren’t always winning awards. They were simply consistent in their processes and were flexible to adapt and learn.
Remember, too, to communicate with your citizens, internal organization, and peer organizations. Share your successes and your failures. Most citizens won’t fault their local government for putting forth an honest effort to be better than they currently are.
If you're ready to improve execution on your plan, our team would love to help! With ClearPoint, you can better organize your plan, ensure your KPIs and initiatives align, and improve communication. On top of all that, you can find the data you need when you need it, and share it all through reports and dashboards. Reach out to us to schedule a demo—we’d be happy to show you around.