Strategic Planning

A foreword from Strategic Planning in Small Communities: A Manager's Manual

Like everything else in the time of the pandemic, strategic planning has become more difficult. Between the intensely partisan and divisive politics of 2020 and the complete uncertainty of budget numbers, thinking about mission statements or visionary goals seems superfluous to many elected officials and nonsensical to others. Elected officials find themselves inundated at public hearings by residents demanding answers to national COVID policies, when the virus will be stopped, or when they can go back to their regular life. Residents want to debate the merits of critical race theory and how to address an individual’s preferred pronouns in school. Meanwhile, making sure basic services or needs are met or that employees have what is needed to do their work becomes secondary to the headline of the day or the budget crisis du jour.

Who has the time or energy to think about what the community would look like if it were perfect when there is so much energy focused on what is wrong, wrong, wrong in this very moment? Yet, somehow, good government must move past what is wrong and refocus energy on what is right—and what is possible. Our communities are places of unity, cohesion, and pride. In our lifetime, there has never been a harder time to find consensus on a future vision and remain focused on local priorities.

Strategic planning, linked to the locality’s budget process, allows facts to be known and shared, goals to be established, and priorities to be set.

Through this process, small communities can remember what makes them unique, focus their efforts on what unites them, and move toward a better future, and do so in a way that pulls the community closer, rather than drives it apart.

In 2021, in the midst of so much antagonism and angst, ICMA funded this fellowship to help managers remember what they already know—our time and energy, as well as our budgets, should reflect what matters to our community and what makes the community a better place. Dr. Stephanie Davis, with local government budgeting experience in localities small and large, serving as a professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech, was the ideal person to bring us all back around to what matters.

Strategic planning — that involves the community, incorporates the unique vision and goals of the community, is agreed to by the elected body, and tied firmly to our budgets — will keep residents, staff, and elected representatives focused on the business, as well as the vision, of government and how to make the community a better place. Davis uses data from communities around the country to show the current status of strategic planning in small communities and best practices to refocus the process. She knows of what she speaks. She has facilitated these retreats and held the hands of many managers as they navigate this tumultuous time and sacred duty. Strategic planning and a better budget process won’t solve all your community’s problems. But it will help your community remember that while the national debates and discussions over issues of incredible importance matter deeply to us, good governance must go on.

Revenues must be predicted, budgets balanced, bills paid, and services rendered. And, if we want to be more than we are already, we must do these things with a future in mind. Otherwise, our community is stagnant.

So, in this time of chaos and noise, the way forward is simple and elegant. Processes already exist to assist local governments in refocusing their energies on their mission, vision, and values. This study will help each of us to remember what we know and to find additional tools to do our budgeting and strategic planning better.

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