8 Things Your City/County Strategic Plan Might Be Missing

Verify nothing is missing from your plan by taking a look at our executive checklist
8 Things Your City/County Strategic Plan Might Be Missing
Verify nothing is missing from your plan by taking a look at our executive checklist

The maturity and effectiveness of Strategic Planning varies a great deal among U.S. cities and counties. When a local government implements a strategic plan correctly, it can advance the openness and sense of community that many want, and the focus it provides can truly work wonders in terms of accomplishment. If your city or county has a strategic plan, it’s easy to think that the time and effort spent creating and implementing it will guarantee success - but if expectations aren’t quite being met, we suggest that you consider what might be missing. Strategic plans have key components, and if any of them aren’t included, you might not see the results you’re hoping for.

1. A Clear Mission or Vision Statement

Vision statements, or mission statements, are high-level, reachable goals that are set from the very beginning of the strategic process and work as the foundation of the plan. They are a declaration of your city’s long-term goals—basically, they state what you are hoping to achieve by going through the strategic planning process. Ask yourself, “Why is it important for us to create this strategic plan?” and “Why is it important to think about where we want to be in the future?” Answering these questions will help you articulate your vision and will help everyone involved in the process be on the same page.

If you didn’t start your strategic planning process with a clear or strong vision statement, it could be worth revisiting.

Example: See how Durham, North Carolina created a new strategic plan.

2. A Change Agenda

A change agenda compares where you are now vs. where you want to go. For example, your schools may meet the general needs of every child, but you want to add schools specialized for children’s specific skills or gifts. This would mean a shift in strategy, from all schools having the same purpose to some schools having special focus – examples might be a STEM school or a music school.

Another change agenda example could be that you’re currently focused on reducing major crimes and felonies in your city, but you want to make a shift to focus on petty crimes. Perhaps the change is shifting from being revenue-driven to being mission-driven. Whatever the case, a change agenda provides direction and will impact how you think about your measures and your strategy map.

Example: The City of Olathe, KS undertook a detailed study of Parks & Recreation usage to establish clear baseline data for determining goals and setting their change agenda.

3. Strategic Themes

Once you’ve agreed on a vision statement and change agenda, you can create strategic themes. Basically, strategic themes are the 3-5 high-level goals that your city or county is trying to accomplish. They are broad in scope and apply to every part of the organization. They define what major strategic goals you will pursue to achieve its vision, meaning they are the basis for change.

Themes also represent deliberate, strategic, directional decisions made by leadership. An example would be to have three themes, such as “safest, most family-friendly, and most business-friendly city/county in the state.” When put together, you should be able to look at the proposed set of themes and ask, “If we excel in these areas, will we achieve our vision?”

If you don’t use the word “theme” you may still have the equivalent in your strategy.  Sometimes when we see “goals” and “objectives” as being separate items, the “goals” act more like themes.

Example: See Fort Lauderdale, Florida’s strategy management journey.

4. Strategic Objectives

Objectives are the next step in the strategic process, and they break down the vision even further. In order to create objectives, you have to identify the most critical goals in each theme. Objectives are short, concise statements that define what an organization has to do on a regular basis to achieve its vision. For local governments, they can be written as informative statements, such as “We must leverage technology to connect citizens" or written in the voice of the citizen, “My family lives in a safe neighborhood.”

Objectives must be measurable, meaning there has to be at least one standard that measures the progress of the objective, and there needs to be a set time frame for completing the objective. Whether it’s five months from now or five years from now, stating a time frame will set expectations and help your teams maintain awareness and focus.

Example: See how Vaughan, Ontario used objectives to get buy-in for their strategic plan.

5. Measures & Targets

In order to know if you’re achieving your goals, you need to be able to measure your progress. Measures are what will be tracked and change over time, and targets are what direction or speed the measure will take. A target is the level of performance or rate of improvement required for a particular measure. Targets should be observed over time to figure out what’s changing (or not) and what should happen next. A measure should include a statement of the unit you’re measuring (dollars, headcount, percentage, rating), a frequency for the measure (monthly, quarterly, annually), and a graph format to show the results (bar chart, pie chart, or a more sophisticated chart).

Being able to visualize the progress being made will help achieve the openness that most local governments want. Citizens appreciate being able to see measures improving and targets being met, and if you can compare yourself to similar cities or other counties, it can often provide helpful context.

Example: See how Arapahoe County, CO uses performance measures to achieve continuous improvement.

6. Strategic Initiatives & Milestones

Initiatives are key action programs made to help you achieve objectives or close the gap between where you are and the targets you've set. Initiatives are often known as projects, actions, or activities. They differ from objectives in that they are more specific, have stated boundaries (a beginning and an end), have a person or team assigned to accomplish them, and typically have a budget. Several initiatives taken together may support a specific objective or theme.

It is important to define the boundaries for strategic initiatives, such as “all strategic projects over $200k in size”. It’s also important for initiatives to be strategic in nature, and not just “operations as usual” projects, or projects you would be doing regardless of a strategic plan.

Example: Interview with executives from the cities of Durham, NC and Olathe, KS at the 2019 Transforming Local Government Conference – they discuss how they benchmark and manage performance data.

7. Do You Have a Culture of Involvement?

Another key element to a successful strategic plan is creating a culture of change. This means involving multiple people across the entire organization, sometimes cross-functionally. You may have a designated “strategic plan team,” but it’s difficult to have a successful plan if only a select group of people know about it or are working toward it. Even if city employees already have other jobs that don’t include the strategic plan, involving them is a great way to spread your reach across all city departments. By creating this culture of openness, involvement, and change, you’ll find it much easier to reach the goals of your plan. If you haven’t done it yet, it’s time to start.

Example: See what Charlottesville, Virginia learned about getting people involved in their strategic plan.

8. Last but not Least, Leadership and Accountability

It doesn’t take an expert to know that without participation by leadership, organized movement towards goals can be difficult.  It’s important to have clarity from leadership, as well as accountability within that leadership, in order to encourage change in the rest of the group or team.

It’s often a good idea to appoint one or two strong voices to be “champions”, people who fully understand the plan and are committed to helping other people understand it also. They can drive buy-in in the early stages of development to make sure you have the support you need. Once you know that everyone is all in, you can move forward with confidence.

Example: See how the City of Arvada, CO created a Performance Dashboard that delivers transparency and accountability by allowing citizens to view the progress being made toward achieving City Council Strategic Results and departmental performance measures.

So, What's Missing From Your Strategic Plan?

As you knew when you began reading, effective Strategic Planning requires management of a great many elements and can be both complex and difficult, especially if it’s not easy to bring together data from a wide variety of sources and keep everyone updated on progress and next steps.

The good news is that technology can help! The cities and counties referenced here are benefitting from software designed specifically for strategic planning and performance management, and their ability to provide everyone with a clear overview of goals, monitor progress, and better understand next steps is providing them with meaningful results and an improved quality of life.

We hope that you’ve found this checklist helpful. As a next step, the subject matter experts here at ClearPoint would be happy to discuss where you are in the strategic planning journey and provide even more relevant examples - hear what local governments with objectives, data, and challenges similar to yours have done, and you will emerge with a clear understanding of how strategic planning software for local government could support your city or county in reaching its strategic planning goals.

8 Things Your City/County Strategic Plan Might Be Missing

Tricia Jessee

Manager of Implementation & Services & Pizza Aficionado

Tricia manages our implementation and onboarding team to ensure the success of ClearPoint customers.