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Strategic Planning In Local Government: The Main Components & Examples
PUBLISHED Nov 20, 2020
Want to get started on a strategic plan for your city? Here’s everything you need to know.
You're working on a strategic plan for your local government. You may be just starting to create your goals or already looking to implement and execute on your initiatives. Either way, you've come to the right place. We know that taking your grand plans and turning them into real benefits for your community isn't easy. It takes planning, execution and a lot of hard work.
If there's anything we've learned from working with local governments, it's that you'll do whatever it takes to grow and thrive as a community. We want to make it as easy as possible for you to balance the needs of all your community stakeholders with the realities of a constrained amount of time and money. Below, we've provided the five things you need in your strategic plan, inspiration from four cities that do strategic panning really well, and 8 tips for making sure your strategic planning process runs smoothly.
Dr. Gerald Gordon put it best when he defined strategic planning as a “systematic process by which a community anticipates and plans for its future.” The way to anticipate the future is through goal setting, and the way to plan for it is by setting the right activities to reach that desired future. A strong link between your city’s goals and the activities of its employees is the key to a strategic plan.
What Is A Government Strategic Plan?
A government strategic plan is a long-term vision of where a municipality wants to be in the future, as well as the steps it will take to get there. The strategic plan serves as the roadmap in prioritizing objectives and initiatives, as well as looking at important metrics and KPI’s to ensure they are on the path to success.
Everyone does planning—and sometimes we get paralyzed by over planning. Your city likely has a lot of plans (like capital improvement plans, infrastructure plans, community health improvement plans and others) on top of department plans. Sometimes it is tough to see how it will all fit together. Wherever you find yourself, you know it’s time for a solid citywide procedure, so you likely searched for “What is a strategic plan?” You’ve come to the right place.
The first step in creating a solid plan is to open the lines of communication. Include your staff, managers and directors, city council, and citizens. You’ll want to engage your staff as much as possible to know your plan focuses on the right initiatives. Without everyone on board from the beginning, the strategy is likely doomed. So once you’ve established great communication, you’re ready to start in on the five main elements of a citywide plan.
(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.)
1. Core Mission
Your city’s mission 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’d recommend that you look around at other municipalities that you respect or admire and find some things that 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. All in all, the core mission 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 strategic plan will need to tie back to this, so be sure it isn’t too specific, and try to keep it concise.
2. Vision Statement
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.
3. Strategic Priorities
Certain goals should be focused on above all others. During this step, you should 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 many municipalities:
- Neighborhood livability
- Health & Safety
- Culture & Entertainment
- Efficient and high performing government
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.
Look at what other local government organizations are doing.
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:
- Join a municipal planning network. We highly suggest finding an organization to help you connect to regional or like-minded municipalities. Begin your search at Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL) or through your state-level ICMA organization. If a network of those municipalities doesn’t already exist, consider starting your own! There’s a good chance your next-door neighbors would enjoy and benefit from it.
- Share measure data with other municipalities through benchmarking or through a measures library. This is a great way to learn what others are measuring and how you stack up against them. You can also join these efforts by creating a library of your own measures for others to benchmark against. If you’re uncertain of where to begin in creating this library, this list of 143 municipal planning measures should get you going in the right direction. At ClearPoint, we have more than 20 municipalities sharing over 250 measures they are tracking in their strategic plans. What better way to have always up-to-date information at your fingertips!
4. Communication & Rollout Plan
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 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 municipal 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:
- Make sure every goal, measure, and project has an owner. On top of that, it’s critical to create a reporting calendar for all owners to follow. This ensures everyone is held accountable and knows when to have their information submitted. Using software can help with this, as you can assign responsibility to measure and project owners, have a place where these owners can update and document their reports, send out meeting reminders, and more.
- Load data automatically whenever possible. It’s inevitable that you’ll need to pull in data from a number of different places—automating this process is the most effective way to get most of your data into one place. Software should be very helpful here assuming your software has data loading capabilities. This capability ensures your owners and leadership don’t waste their time adding data but instead can focus on analyzing and managing the results of your strategy.
Is your strategic plan not producing the results you expected? Download this white paper to find out what might be missing.
Strategic Planning In Local Government: 4 Real-World Examples
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. Their results won them an Excellence Award from the esteemed Tennessee Center for Performance Excellence in 2017.
There is another unique element of Germantown’s planning process worth noting. The city did an excellent job organizing citizen focus groups as part of the “Germantown Forward 2030” vision plan. It 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.
Fort Collins, CO
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 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:
- Chief finance officer
- Director of financial planning and analysis
- Director of budgeting
- Performance excellence manager
- City manager
- Deputy city manager
- City manager’s intern
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 nonbudgeting 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
Fort Lauderdale, FL
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:
- They did a great job marketing and branding their strategic plan outside the organization so it became recognizable in the community.
- Over the course of several months, Fort Lauderdale held several “telephone town halls.” The mayor, the city manager, and various other municipal leaders were on a conference line, and anyone who wished to do so could call in, participate, listen to others, and ask any questions they had. That way people with busy schedules (who doesn’t have one of those?) could still be active in the community while they, for example, made dinner.
- The city also created a city council meeting “in a box.” Interested citizens could sign up to host a community meeting and would be sent a box filled with detailed questions to ask and information to disseminate. Meetings could be held anywhere—a park, someone’s home, a church, a school—and the meeting host would capture information from the attendees and then ship it back to the municipal offices. Using this method, Fort Lauderdale gained 40,000 touch points with citizens. (In a city of just over 260,000, that is an incredible amount!) The ideas—which ranged from hosting the Olympics to creating more park space—gave the leadership an idea of what the community was interested in. Furthermore, those involved took more pride and ownership in the projects because they felt involved and knew their voices were being heard.
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
8 Things To Keep In Mind For Strategic Planning In Government Organizations
1. Involve your stakeholders.
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.
2. Be bold, but realistic.
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.
3. Don’t be afraid of your weaknesses.
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.
4. Don’t neglect your strengths.
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.
5. Don’t go in alone; seek out help when needed.
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 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.
6. Keep your focus on the long term.
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.
7. Avoid scope creep.
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.
8. Don’t let your strategic plan sit on a shelf.
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.
Keep In Mind...
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, communication is key. 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! Strategic planning software enables organizations to organize their plan, ensuring that their KPIs and initiatives truly align to the goals stakeholders identified. It also improves communication, making it easy to find the data you need, when you need it, and share it through reports and dashboards. Just reach out if you want to chat.