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7 Best Practices for Local Government Strategic Planning

A local government strategic plan provides an opportunity for city and county managers to shape everything from their jurisdiction’s youth services, accessibility, and 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. 

A strategic plan is an opportunity for local government 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. Preparing it must come with careful consideration. However, developing a strategic plan also involves some complexity and several moving parts. Council members must also approve the plan. Adhering to the following best practices for local government strategic planning can help you streamline your planning process 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

A strategic plan serves the community, so it should take the community’s needs into consideration. Seeking community input during the planning process is critical. Additionally, mechanisms to ensure that resident feedback is heard should be established. These mechanisms include public meetings, surveys, hearings, workshops, and technological solutions for broader participation by those who would not necessarily participate.

2. Put vision before resources

Policy experts often recommend that the vision of the strategic plan not be hampered by available resources. The GFOA Best Practices: Establishment of Strategic Plans states that a strategic plan is about “influencing the future, not just preparing for it or adapting to it.” It goes on to say that it is the vision itself that should drive the allocation of resources. In other words, while it is important to consider resources, strategic plans are a roadmap. 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

Including DEI in your strategic plan ensures that you’re serving all parts of your community – not just the active participants. The American Planning Association defines this as “recognizing planning practices that have had an unequal impact on specific communities and actively working with affected residents to create better communities for all.” Establishing equitable and inclusive processes from the ideation phase ensures that all residents have a voice in shaping the vision and setting strategic priorities, ensuring that all residents benefit from 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. Lowering these barriers and including underrepresented voices in your strategic plan helps you build a city with all of the communities you serve. 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 should borrow from the successes of previous strategic plans, and from the successes of their neighbors. Similarly, local governments can benchmark against similar communities.

5. Utilize data to support your plan

Perhaps one of the most important steps in creating a strategic plan is the approval process. The process of creating a plan varies by jurisdiction: in some cities and towns, managers are responsible for creating the plan, while in other jurisdictions the plan is created by a committee. One constant, however, is that strategic plans and the priorities they establish must be approved by elected officials such as council members. The challenge is that it can be difficult to approve policies that are endorsed by more than just the loudest members if council members are not heard by the entire community.

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 comes into play, and it is representative and diverse community input. Using organic feedback and broad-reaching surveys can help local government leaders get elected officials on board and approve their strategic plan.

6. Measure your performance

A successful local government strategic plan provides a vision for the future and also lays out necessary steps 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 implementation is going according to plan and which areas need to be optimized. 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 must be able to set a course in both the development and implementation of a strategic plan. Additionally, they need to adapt to changes in the environment and lessons learned through performance management and evaluation. Doing so is a recipe for success.

Local government strategic planning: next steps

Following these best practices puts local government leaders on the path to a dynamic strategic plan that serves all members of the community. However, with each of these best practices come new challenges that must be considered in order to be truly successful.

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