Strategic Planning in the Small Government

Written by Tom Raguz, Deputy City Administrator/Finance Director, Brooklyn, Ohio, and Jennifer Signs, Finance Manager, Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District, Bellingham, Washington

The Small Government Forum recently hosted a networking event on   strategic planning for  small governments. Ideally, the strategic plan of an organization should state the mission, vision, and values of the organization. From there, the goals and objectives should be set forth. This allows the departments to set their goals and understand how this matches that of the organization as a whole while also assuring each department understands the roadmap of the organization. The key to enhancing a government’s  strategic plan is to understand what prevents effective strategic planning and the execution of that plan. Often, small governments struggle to develop a plan based on available resources  whether  monetary  or staffing. Another struggle faced by small governments when it comes to strategic planning is that the annual budget is frequently substituted as a strategic plan. While the budget is an important document, often times it only accounts for one year  whereas as a strategic plan outlines goals for several years.

Session attendees provided diverse perspectives, approaches, and ideas to the discussion. Participants were separated into breakout groups to discuss  topics within strategic planning including the Finance Department’s role in the planning and development; how to get buy in; and how to drive change. To improve strategic planning and delivery, it is important to focus on the culture, purpose, operational model, and execution of a government entity to encourage success of a strategic plan. However, of the four focus areas, culture seems to be the most important area.  Knowing who you serve and what the needs of your community are helps create  buy-in that will foster change.

After the breakout rooms, participants discussed  the main takeaways from each group, which included ensuring that the plan encompasses the full organization and that representatives from each department are involved in the development and execution of the plan to achieve buy in.

Other takeaways include that driving change is difficult and that developing a strategic plan is a change in the culture of an organization. The heavy lifting often happens at the start but once  the culture shifts, maintaining it will be much easier.. Also, the Finance Department is heavily relied  upon in finding a way to finance items within the strategic plan that require funding so it’s important for staff to be involved through all stages of strategic planning and the implementation of goals and objectives within the plan. Members of the Finance team should be open minded and willing partners with other departments in achieving their goals for the betterment of the organization.

In short, small governments are encouraged to take their strategic planning process to the next level  or risk becoming stagnant or irrelevant to the citizens they serve. Don’t be afraid to involve and work with your community to set forth  priorities and goals. Try to find ways that focus the needs around the voices in the community.

For more information about developing a strategic plan for your organization,  GFOA offers best practices for establishing strategic plans here. This will help guide your organization by establishing links between authorized spending and an organizational goals. Lastly, post your questions or comments you may have on this subject in the Small Government Forum’s Community Forum page.