By Russ Blackburn, city manager, Port St. Lucie; David Barth, Ph.D., Barth Associates; and Kate Parmelee, strategic initiatives director, Port St. Lucie.
Most city and county managers and elected officials understand the benefits of strategic planning, but the process is often considered to be time-consuming, boring, or – worse yet – a waste of time. Over the past four years, however, Port St. Lucie has refined its strategic planning process to be just the opposite. It has become a dynamic tool for decision-making, aligning the broad goals and priorities of the city council with the day-to-day work of city staff.
Several factors have contributed to the effectiveness of the city’s strategic planning process:
- It has a rhythm: Strategic planning has evolved from an annual day-long city council retreat into a recurring, year-long process that has developed its own “rhythm,” gathering input from stakeholders and tracking and analyzing progress over the course of the year.
- It’s inclusive: The process has become incredibly inclusive, engaging residents, staff, councilmembers, and other stakeholders in a meaningful way.
- It focuses relentlessly on implementation: Every initiative and project identified in the strategic plan is assigned to a department and project manager, who must incorporate them into the departments’ work plans, and regularly report back to council on their status.
Strategic planning involves long-term thinking and casting vision, which can be challenging with so much unknown for local governments navigating the COVID-19 crisis response.
But in the long term, a strategy to emerge as a stronger organization in a post-COVID economy is perhaps never more important. The Association of Strategic Planning surveyed practitioners in the last economic crisis and found that “organizations with the most serious commitment to strategic planning… are in a position to be proactive rather than reactive, and are thus able to take advantage of growth opportunities as they appear in times of economic disruption” (Wilson and Eilersten, 2010).
How the Strategic Planning Process Works
The rhythm of the city’s annual strategic planning process is essentially a four-step system: 1. Analyze 2. Design (Define, Ideate, and Select) 3. Implement 4. Evaluate.
Step 1: Analyze
The process begins with the council’s annual winter retreat, where they receive in-depth presentations on potential areas to focus on in the strategic planning session.
Concurrently, the annual scientifically-valid National Community SurveyTM of residents is conducted by the National Research Center. We then host an annual drop-in Citizen Summit that provides an opportunity for residents to weigh-in on their needs and priorities. Speeches and presentations have been replaced with interactive booths, exhibits, and activities to engage residents of all ages; last year over 600 participants provided their input regarding strategic priorities.
Step 2: Design (Define, Ideate, and Select)
Survey results are triangulated with the findings from the summit and council winter retreat and provided to the council to consider when determining priorities during their two-day strategic planning session. At the session, we review the status of current strategic initiatives and projects and nominate new initiatives and projects for inclusion, based on resident feedback.
Step 3: Implement and Evaluate
Once councilmembers have approved their top priorities, city staff assign project managers and each department incorporates council’s priorities into their business plans, while project managers begin developing project “charters” to determine the resources needed to implement their project plans that are then included in the city’s budget and annual capital improvement plan (CIP).
On a quarterly basis, progress of the strategic plan is evaluated and a report is provided to the council.
The process begins again each year, reinforcing a cycle of continuous improvement. Last year’s survey and citizen summit concluded just before the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic. This year, our survey questions will help our officials assess the impact of COVID-19 and our Citizen Summit is moving to a virtual format, and smaller drop-in, pop-up events – a pivot that will help us continue to utilize our trusted process and allow the council to systematically adjust to the feedback it receives.
We have received indications that this process is working. At ICMA’s UNITE event this year, the city’s efforts to listen and act on resident feedback were honored with the 2020 Voice of the People Award for Transformation in Community Engagement from the NRC at Polco and ICMA. We were also honored in 2019 for Transformation in Foundations. The Voice of the People Award is the only award given in local government based on the opinion of community residents.
Case Study – The Port St. Lucie Ten-Year Parks and Recreation Master Plan
The city’s recently completed Ten-Year Parks and Recreation Master Plan (PRMP) serves as a good example of the effectiveness of the city’s strategic planning process. Originally identified as a priority project during the 2016 strategic planning workshop, the parks master plan was funded and initiated in 2018.
First, the strategic plan established broad goals to inform and direct the development of the PRMP, including high-quality infrastructure and facilities; quality education; vibrant neighborhoods; a high-performing government organization; diverse economy and employment opportunities; a safe, clean, and beautiful city; and culture, nature, and fun activities. Therefore, key adopted recommendations from the PRSMP included several sustainability and resiliency initiatives that will generate recreation, economic, social, and environmental benefits for the city, including:
- Expanding the city’s signature waterfront project to attract new businesses, promote tourism, and meet many of residents’ top-priority recreation needs, such as walking and biking trails, an amphitheater, and multipurpose open spaces.
- Acquiring land to improve equitable access to local neighborhood parks and provide additional stormwater treatment to improve the quality of adjacent water bodies.
- Improving and activating existing parks to incorporate best practices regarding branding, placemaking, and green infrastructure.
- Improving multimodal access within this historically suburban community through complete streets, bikeways, and trails.
- Improving community health and fitness through expansion of the city’s indoor recreation facilities, and increasing collaboration with the county school district.
Second, the PRSMP was developed concurrently with the annual update to the strategic plan, providing numerous opportunities for feedback loops, and discussions with the councilmembers, city manager, department heads (i.e., parks, public works, planning, finance, economic development). These frequent communications and feedback loops throughout the process were critical to defining and addressing parks and recreation needs, as well as community sustainability and resiliency issues.
Third, the parks and recreation department and other city departments refined their business plans to incorporate recommendations from the PRSMP to better align with the city council’s strategic goals, and to identify the resources needed to implement the council’s priorities.
Finally, consistent with the strategic planning process, city staff developed project charters for each of the top priorities from the PRSMP.
Port St. Lucie’s City Manager Russ Blackburn concluded that “the convergence of traditional parks master planning with strategic planning provides communities with a powerful tool. Governments should address as many infrastructure needs as possible with scarce resources. Parks which also serve as stormwater basins, well field recharge areas, or urban buffers add richness to the park while potentially adding funding to the park construction budget.”