Durham County Public Library needed a vision. Like many domestic and international municipal departments, this North Carolina public library system found itself straying from its original goal of being a citizen-focused organization, according to former library director Hampton “Skip” Auld. It needed to regain its connection with the community through appropriate, cost-effective programs. In order to revitalize the system’s libraries and better meet the needs of its populace, Durham County officials developed and implemented a strategic plan.
There seems to be no better time than today for municipalities to adapt their own strategic plan.
Which, according to the Foundation for Community Association Research, is all about envisioning and projecting where your organization expects to be in five, 10, or 15 years—and then identifying how you will get there. With budget cuts looming in most U.S. states and politicians eager to trim the fat, an organization with commitment and a well-surveyed direction can retain funding and employees, and meet its overall objectives by successfully drafting and implementing a strategic plan.
Yet despite offering benefits like increased collaboration among government officials and citizens, a renewed sense of purpose for citizens, management and staff, and cost savings, strategic planning has not enjoyed widespread adoption over the last 25 years. According to an article in the January-February 2005 edition of Public Administration Review, federal agencies are required to implement strategic plans, and many states have laws in place that encourage the practice. This has led to 60 percent of state government agencies enacting strategic plans. However, local governments by and large lack these requirements, leading to only 40 percent of municipalities from 2000 to 2005 engaging in formal, citywide strategic planning.
That’s why strategic planning success stories feature refined techniques for developing, monitoring, and implementing their strategic plans. Through focusing on community input, controlling the allocation of scarce resources, creating clear performance metrics and devising a succession plan to keep things on track in the event of staff turnover, a strategic plan can be an effective tool for driving your organization toward its shared vision—instead of being placed in a filing cabinet and forgotten.
What exactly is strategic planning? It’s a set of tools to allow an organization’s mission to be fulfilled with maximum effectiveness and efficiency. While strategic plans can take a variety of approaches (depending on the realities of that organization’s region), there are several essential, common characteristics of a successful plan. Perhaps the most important is what the New Jersey State League of Municipalities also labels as one of the first steps of an effective plan: the development of a vision statement. Between one to two sentences, this statement encompasses an ideal picture of the local government and its future, giving all stakeholders something to strive for.
From that vision statement, long-term goals can be developed. Having acknowledged their vision of a customer-centered library, Durham County devised four primary and three supporting goals. Their primary goals:
- Make the library a customer-centered and welcoming place for the Durham community,
- Support literacy by preparing children for school success and helping teens to develop skills they need to become productive, well-informed citizens,
- Become a leader in providing residents with information technology resources for academic, business, social networking, and leisure purposes, and
- Embrace and support Durham’s cultural heritage for a vibrant community.
Management devised objectives for meeting these goals with clear metrics to measure their success. For instance, one objective of Durham’s goal of making a customer-centered library: 95 percent of patrons by June 30, 2011, should report that staff members are “knowledgeable, friendly, accessible, and attentive to their needs.” These definitive measurements helped the Durham County Library to stay on track, meet all of its goals, and succeed in its four-year strategic plan.
Perhaps the biggest difference between a strategic plan that’s an effective and useful tool for driving your organization to success—and one that’s just a laminated paperweight—is to make the strategic planning process a collective one. According to Public Administration Review, while 80 percent of municipalities directly involved the mayor and city council in strategic planning, only 60 percent engaged the citizenry and 40 percent factored in staff. Instead of having a strategic plan that is something that only management can see and control, feedback and development of the strategic plan should be a job for citizens and government staff as well.
When Montgomery County, Md., a local government just outside of Washington, D.C., instituted its 2004 strategic planning process, it made sure that everyone could question the development and implementation of the plan. According to Montgomery County HR Director Joseph Adler, IPMA-CP, SPHR, management assigned leaders to specifically monitor and implement one goal each. In turn they filtered this knowledge through to the entire organization and generated periodic reports on their progress. A comprehensive, successful strategic plan cannot succeed without management viewing that plan as a tool toward which they need to allocate time, staff, money and other resources in order to realize those goals. Strategic management also requires that organization leaders monitor performance and results, as well as drive the plan through the budgetary process to ensure proper funding. This is not to say that staff should be given free reign to make decisions on the plan. Input should be sought, collected and welcomed, then factored into strategic planning as appropriate.
Colorado Springs, Colo., involved citizens in its strategic plan by creating a citizen committee to review aspects of city governance. The committee made suggestions on the city’s taxpayer’s bill of rights, revenue, and expenditures and the city adopted the majority of those recommendations, according to Colorado Springs Senior Budget Analyst Angela Hoffman. This sustainable funding committee fulfilled a strategic plan goal and also served as a way to contribute citizen input to other goals, such as improved quality of life, civic engagement and economic vitality.