By Marisa Helms
Mention “strategic planning” at a party full of city administrators, and you’ll likely get a mixed reaction. Indeed, the term has suffered from a “bad rap” over the years, according to Dave Unmacht, a consultant with three decades of experience managing cities and counties in Minnesota.
Strategic planning’s tainted reputation is partly due, ironically, to one of its strengths—its flexibility. Because the planning process can vary widely city to city, everyone seems to have a different definition of what strategic planning means. So, it’s not uncommon to hear the process regularly disparaged as a simplistic “Kumbaya” exercise with no real impact.
However, a more optimistic definition of strategic planning is alive and well in many Minnesota cities that have thoughtfully executed well-designed, tailored strategic plans, and have stayed committed to them. Instead of viewing a strategic plan as an overwrought document gathering dust on a shelf, these cities view their plans as dynamic roadmaps for setting priorities and guiding city staff and elected officials toward reaching targeted goals.
The strategic-planning process begins with a retreat-style group meeting that can last a single afternoon or two or three days. Completing a plan can take a few days, or a few weeks, or it can last more than a year. It all depends on a city’s size, its resources, and what it’s trying to accomplish. The resulting workplan document can be very simple or complex, depending on the city’s needs.
The average cost of implementing a strategic plan (including process facilitation) can range as low as $1,000 to $2,000, or up to $25,000 to $35,000, according to Unmacht. Costs vary based on the scope of services, number of meetings, and the length of the process.
The cities of Carver and Hopkins are featured here as just two examples of cities that have successfully taken the plunge into strategic planning. While they differ in their size, challenges, and opportunities, officials from both cities say strategic planning has helped strengthen their communities.
With strategic planning, they are building consensus about how to spend money; managing and completing long-overdue projects; communicating city priorities with citizens; and helping city officials think strategically about where their cities have been and where they are going.
Carver identifies solutions, gains consensus
The small City of Carver in the Minnesota River valley (about 25 minutes southwest of Minneapolis) boasts a downtown that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As the oldest town in Carver County, the city’s population stayed at about 1,000 people for decades. But, starting in the year 2000, along with the announcement that U.S. Highway 212 would be expanded from two lanes into a four-lane freeway, Carver began growing exponentially, hitting 4,100 residents by 2014.
Carver City Administrator Brent Mareck says the population boom presented many challenges. The suburban push into Carver required new subdivisions and additional residential development, which inadvertently led to the creation of two separate communities that seemed to be on different paths. Mareck says there became one Carver community over in the new subdivisions by the freeway, and another community in the historic part of town. Mareck says the city did not want to become a series of disjointed developments. So in 2010, the Council discussed looking at strategic planning as a proactive tool to give staff and elected officials greater influence over the community’s identity and character.
“The City Council was very forward thinking,” says Mareck. “They quickly agreed to a [strategic-planning] process to make sure the new and historic parts of the city could grow into the same thing. They had a vision for what they wanted Carver to be.”
Before embarking on a strategic plan, Mareck began networking with other cities to learn more about it. He asked:
“So you take those stories, you hear ideas from other communities, and then tailor the process to how your city operates,” Mareck says.
In 2011, Carver hired Unmacht to facilitate its strategic-planning process, which led to the plan’s adoption and implementation that same year.
Carver’s process and plan
The City of Carver’s 13 full-time staff from five departments got together to brainstorm during a one-day retreat. At that session, they identified what they saw as the issues facing the city at the time, as well as forecasted city needs one, five and 10 years into the future.
Carver’s strategic plan (updated in 2013) lists 18 measurable action items distributed within Carver’s five larger “vision” categories of community identity, community vitality, community engagement, organizational culture, and public facilities. City staff are responsible for completing action items by a target date and providing the Council with monthly progress reports.
“We really make a commitment to follow through on action items and to hold staff accountable,” says Mareck. “We integrate the ‘vision’ goals into our day-to-day operations by talking about it and sharing it with the public, the Council, and other commissions.”
Carver’s 2013-2014 plan is about 70 percent complete, and the city’s next planning session is scheduled for early 2015.
Mareck says he and city staff regard Carver’s strategic plan as a “living thing” that continues to evolve along with the city, and that strategic planning has become an integral part of the organization.
“It’s a team effort and everybody feels like they’re contributing to the plan,” says Mareck. “We can see the results out in the community. So, it’s nice to have this foundation that can be built upon and keep growing.”
Hopkins refines its downtown identity
The City of Hopkins (population 18,000) has been using goal setting and strategic planning fairly consistently since the mid-1990s. Initially, the process was employed as a way to help the city find new and creative ways to improve Main Street, its downtown, and housing stock.
City Manager Mike Mornson says each year Hopkins’ city staff and Council review the strategic plan during a day-long retreat. Several strategies are then developed and opportunities are identified. The plan is anchored by three goals:
Mornson, who has been working for Hopkins since 2011, facilitates the annual retreats and encourages all 102 city staff members to take a good look at the city’s mission and goals to make sure they still feel fresh and relevant. Like most goal-setting sessions, Mornson also asks his staff to anticipate demands facing the city over the coming two years and to look 10 to 15 years into the future.
The annual goal-setting process “opens up communication and stimulates relationship building for the group, to get everybody on the same page,” says Mornson. “The bottom line is to continually improve communication between Council and staff.”
Each year when the Hopkins City Council adopts its most up-to-date goals and strategic plan, the document is posted on the city’s website, emailed to residents, and included in the employee newsletter and payroll stuffer. For Mornson, the goal is to disseminate the plan as widely as possible to establish buy-in and reinforce accountability—both are central elements of a successful strategic plan.
“We actually quiz employees and ask them: ‘Can somebody tell me what our mission statement is?’” says Mornson. “We want to drill down into the organization. It’s not just the executive team who needs to know what the plan is. We want the police officer and the person who works on the sewer and water lines and the guy who mows the lawn to understand it, too. We make sure that message gets out to everybody.”
Mornson also takes the plan into the community with presentations to the Rotary, Lion’s Club, and neighborhood organizations.
Completed projects that have sprung from the city’s goal-setting process include improvements to Main Street and the city’s parks, creation of the Hopkins Center for the Arts, and the completion of significant redevelopment projects like the Cargill campus, which opened in 2008 at the corner of Highway 169 and Excelsior Boulevard.
Other examples of city amenities that have emerged from Hopkins’ goal-setting process include a historic walking tour, a farmer’s market, and “Hopkins Artstreet,” a program established in 2010. Each year, new public artworks are installed downtown, and residents are encouraged to vote for a favorite.
“I’m a big believer in [goal setting],” says Mornson. “To sit down and communicate your plan and agree on things you want to work on is very powerful. I can go back to each project and say had it not been for goal setting, that may not have gotten done as quickly or as well as it did.
Consultant Unmacht says he has helped many local governments establish individualized strategic plans over the years. Still, he estimates that less than half of Minnesota cities engage in an organized, formal, and deliberate strategic-planning process.
Cities that shy away from strategic planning do so for a variety of reasons. Barriers include a lack of clarity on what a city wants to do, or having had a bad experience with the process in the past, Unmacht says. But taking a closer look at strategic planning is well worth the time and effort.
At its most basic, strategic planning is an opportunity to talk about what’s most important to a city, says Unmacht, who is a passionate believer that strategic planning is one of the best ways for cities to follow through on their obligations to citizens.
“It’s a fundamental responsibility of any organization to allocate its resources effectively, especially when it’s constantly pressured to do more and more in an environment with less and less money,” Unmacht says. “Strategic planning is a means to do that. It gives cities a way to clearly develop their priorities.”
Marisa Helms is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.
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