A local government strategic plan provides an opportunity for city and county managers to shape everything from their jurisdiction’s youth services to accessibility to the downtown landscape. This two-to-five-year plan is a vision for the future—one that finds the balance between available resources and big dreams.
More so, a strategic plan is an opportunity for city and county managers to connect to their community’s needs and to build initiatives based on resident priorities. To that end, it’s one of the most valuable work products local government leaders will draft and oversee, and preparing it must come with careful consideration. Yet drafting a strategic plan also comes with a fair share of complexity and several moving parts—and the cherry on top is that it must also be approved by council members. Observing and adhering to the following local government strategic planning best practices can help you streamline your planning process—from ideation to execution—and ultimately improve your strategic plan.
Local government strategic planning best practices
The strategic planning best practices below will help city and county managers draft and execute a successful plan.
1. Obtain community input
If a strategic plan is meant to serve the community, it only makes sense that it takes the community’s needs into consideration. It is therefore essential to gather community input during the planning process, and to put mechanisms in place that will ensure resident feedback is heard. Mechanisms include public meetings, surveys, hearings, workshops, and technology solutions for more broad-reaching community input from those who won’t necessarily opt-in.
2. Put vision before resources
While it may seem counter-intuitive, policy experts also often recommend that the vision of the strategic plan should not be inhibited by available resources. The Government Finance Officers Association’s Best Practices: Establishment of Strategic Plans states that a strategic plan is about “influencing the future rather than simply preparing or adapting to it,” going on to say that it is the vision itself that should then determine the allocation of resources. In other words, while it is important to take resources into consideration, strategic plans are a roadmap—a broad strokes picture of how local government leaders want the future to look. And as they don’t require dollar-for-dollar accounting, you should see your strategic plan as an opportunity to dream big.
3. Incorporate equity from the first step
Incorporating equity and inclusion into your strategic plan will help ensure that you’re serving all corners of your community, and not just the active participants. The American Planning Association defines planning for equity as, “recognizing planning practices that have had a disparate impact on certain communities and actively working with affected residents to create better communities for all.” But in order to truly build an equitable plan, it’s important to be inclusive and incorporate equity measures from the very start, as well as build equity and inclusivity parameters into the plan itself. Adopting equitable and inclusive processes from the ideation phase ensures that all residents have a voice in shaping the vision and defining strategic priorities, and therefore that all residents will be served by your strategic plan. Too often, the most active participants in local government do not necessarily speak for the entire community. More so, the most vulnerable members of your community may face barriers to participation. These include language barriers, accessibility, and even a lack of knowledge that taking part in local government is possible. Bringing down these barriers and including underrepresented voices in your strategic plan helps you build a city with all of the different communities you serve and not just for them. For city and county managers, this means broadening the ways by which you hear from the community and gather feedback.
4. Build on the past
A successful strategic plan doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. City and county managers can—and should—borrow from the successes of previous strategic plans, and even from the successes of their neighbors. Similarly, local governments can benchmark against similar communities to understand the successes of their own initiatives as well as the successes of their neighbors’ initiatives.
5. Utilize data to support your plan
Perhaps one of the most important steps in the creation of a strategic plan is the approval process. The drafting of a plan varies by jurisdiction, with some city and county managers responsible for creating the plan, while in other jurisdictions the plan is created by committee. Yet one constant is that strategic plans and the priorities they define must be approved by elected officials such as council members. The challenge here is that if council members aren’t hearing from the entire community, it can be hard to get measures approved beyond those that are advocated for by the loudest members. For this reason, data is one of the most valuable tools local governments leaders can harness, as it means backing up proposed initiatives with the priorities of the community at large. This is where community input—and getting representative and diverse community input—comes into play. Utilizing organic feedback and broad-reaching surveys can help local government leaders get elected officials on board, and get their strategic plan approved.
6. Measure your performance
A successful local government strategic plan not only provides a vision for the future, it also lays out the steps necessary to achieve those goals. Performance management is the assessment of the implementation of a strategic plan through key performance indicators (KPIs) and data analysis. Without KPIs, it’s impossible to know whether your execution is going according to plan, and what areas need to be tweaked or improved. Performance management is an opportunity to evaluate your strategic plan in real-time—or even just a portion of it. Perhaps equally importantly, performance management also provides a foundation for future plans.
7. Stay flexible
If the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that even the best-laid plans can go awry. For that reason, staying flexible and dynamic is a must for executing a strong strategic plan. City and county managers have to be able to pivot and adapt to environmental changes as well as to any lessons learned through performance management and evaluation, during both the ideation and execution of a strategic plan. Doing so is a recipe for success.
Local government strategic planning: next steps
Keeping the above strategic planning best practices in mind will put local government leaders on the path to a dynamic strategic plan that serves all members of the community. But with each of these best practices, new challenges also arise—challenges that must be accounted for in order to truly find success.