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Would Strategic Planning Benefit Your Municipality?

Would Strategic Planning Benefit Your Municipality?

By Anne Neal

September 1, 2008


What is strategic planning? And what do you need to know about the process to determine how strategic planning could benefit your municipality? This article provides a brief overview of strategic planning—the benefits, process, obstacles, and strategies for insuring accountability and follow-through.

Strategic planning is a systematic process where you identify why your local government exists, whom it serves, benefits derived from the services you provide, and your administration’s vision for serving its citizens. Your strategic plan serves as a blueprint for how your local government will achieve its vision, and it answers three basic questions: “Who are we?” “What do we want?” and “How are we going to get what we want?” At each stage of the process you will need to involve various people and groups, and this is where the power of strategic planning comes into play.

Does strategic planning sound like a long, drawn-out process?  Well, it can take a while to do it right.  What’s the old saying?  “Anything worth doing, is worth doing right.”  This may be quite true, but we think there needs to be a lot of benefits for embarking on a time-consuming and sometimes difficult process.  Participants in previous strategic planning workshops determined a number of benefits for undergoing this process:

  • Helps engage the community and involve a wider group of stakeholders
  • Creates a plan that has the community in mind
  • Focuses on broad issues
  • It’s fun to envision the future
  • Identifies clear impacts and decisions
  • Helps us keep a focus
  • Proactive v. reactive (not crisis management)
  • Assesses resources, strengths, and weaknesses
  • Makes it easier to measure success
  • Adds to the stability of the community
  • Gives us a sense of achievement
  • Provides stability through term-limits / changes

There are many, many approaches to strategic planning; however, there are a couple of common threads among most plans.  The predominant starting point is a solid understanding of the organization: its vision, mission, values, history, key contributors, accomplishments, and setbacks, all answering the question of “Who are we?”  Being able to see the organization within the environment in which it operates is also beneficial.  There are a variety of environmental scans that help organizations understand the pressures and dynamics that are affecting them and that could affect their strategic plan.

In our workshop we asked participants to conduct an environmental scan on trends in local municipalities.  Here are some of the trends they came up with:

Emerging Trends Existing Trends Disappearing Trends
More partnerships Lack of public involvement Public engagement
Increasing public involvement via technology Lack of long-term thinking Trust in public officials
State-local government changes Gap between “have’s” and “have-not’s” Face-to-face personal interaction
Revenue limitations (Tabor) Special interest focus Personal responsibility
Succession planning Expectation of technology Volunteers
Demographic changes Term limits Trust in government
Interest in parks and trails Lack of economic stability Voter turnout
More technology Resource challenges Civic involvement
Focus on performance measurements Increasing demands, decreasing resources Time
Environmental concerns Tabor Community involvement
Increasing senior population Entitlement Rural/historic characteristics
Leadership gaps due to baby boomers retiring Public disconnect with government Sense of community pride
Citizen apathy Trust in media
Budget issues Neighborhoods
Economic development “Mom and Pop”
Growth v. no-growth “Handshake” operations
Competition for resources
Senior and youth issues
Erosion of local control


What would you add to these trends?

Still answering the “Who are we?” question, one common thread in most strategic planning processes is to conduct a SWOT analysis to explore the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats of the organization.  In the Technology of Participation ToP®* Strategic Planning Method, we also look at the benefits of success and the dangers of success (unanticipated consequences of success that you might want to plan for).

Once the group has a pretty good handle on its identity and environment, the next couple of steps have to do with setting goals, objectives, strategic directions, and developing action plans to accomplish them. This helps identify “What We Want” and “How We’re Going to Get It.”  The ToP®* method of strategic planning includes the following process:

Strategic planning process graphic

We’re not suggesting that strategic planning is an easy process. It requires a strong commitment from both your executive level and governing board. To secure top-level support you will need to assess the resources needed to develop and implement a successful plan. Resources to consider include staffing needs and compensation for their time, hiring a professional facilitator, your organization’s technological ability to design, implement, and monitor the plan, and meeting and facilities expenses. If the roof has caved in and you’re in crises mode, strategic planning is not the best method for dealing with the crises. Take care of the crises first and then consider creating a strategic plan.

Additional challenges include identifying who makes the decisions at each stage of the process and when you need to build consensus.  Using a skilled facilitator can guide you through this, and utilizing a participatory method—such as the ToP® Methods—when appropriate can make it a more inclusive process.  Making sure you have included all important stakeholders will help you avoid creating a plan that is unsupported.  When done right, strategic planning should engage and excite your staff and citizens in shaping the future direction of your local government.

The final plan should include specific information about goals, objectives, and clearly defined action steps that identify who is responsible for each action item, what resources are needed, when the action item is due, and how you will monitor progress and measure success.  As a basic rule, you should regularly review your action items; a good practice is to conduct quarterly and annual evaluations.  However, more frequent than four times a year may be necessary depending on external circumstances. To keep people committed and on track, communicate and publish results regularly and acknowledge departmental and individual accomplishments as they occur.  It may be helpful to research other municipalities’ strategic plans or to benchmark your processes.  Keep your focus on the strategic plan and strategic directions.  Many leaders get off track because they focus most of their time on operational or tactical issues and don’t think strategically. Leaders who spend about 20 percent of their time thinking strategically and working their plan are more likely to be successful achieving the goals and vision of their strategic plan.

If your organization has never engaged in the strategic planning process, it can be helpful to start with a project or department to get some experience and success before embarking on a plan for the whole municipality.  Utilizing a professional facilitator can help your municipality navigate the strategic planning process.


*Technology of Participation® is a registered trademark of the Institute of Cultural Affairs.  ToP® Group Facilitation Methods and Strategic Planning Methods are offered world-wide by ToP® trainers.

About the Author
Penny McDanielPenny McDaniel, MA, has more than 20 years of experience as a trainer, facilitator, and consultant working with clients in all levels of government, nonprofit, and the private sector throughout the U.S. Penny received a master's degree in Applied Communication, with a Certificate in Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), from the University of Denver. Read more ยป
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