(Can forty-three new Council priorities be strategic or even priorities?)
I was listening to CBC radio this morning, and a dietician talked about New Year’s resolutions. Her advice was to start small, change one thing, and build on that success. I have had the good fortune of preparing and reviewing numerous Strategic Plans over the years. In most cases, Council has spent a great deal of time setting its Vision, Mission, and Goals for the future. At some point, the Staff is involved, and, in a few cases, the public is also. All have focus areas, and many are very detailed in outlining projects, initiatives, timelines, and key performance indicators. Great stuff, but aren’t we, in some cases blurring the lines between strategic and operational planning with the role of the Council versus the CAO and Staff?
Local government management is complex, with multiple bottom lines and citizens who tend to be more vigilant and vocal than your average shareholder. Whether you are a large city or a small village, the legislative requirements of local government are essentially the same. In my experience, the difference is generally that the smaller the local government, the fewer resources they have to deal with their statutory obligations and emerging issues facing them. Most have too much work and insufficient resources, which puts a tremendous strain on the organization.
As a City Manager, I eventually realized that 95% of the day-to-day operations of a city occur regardless of the leadership at the helm of either the Council chambers or the City Manager’s Office (I was initially going to say 80%, but I realized I was giving myself more credit than I deserved). This fact is often overlooked as a new Council embarks on a strategic planning process.
I strongly believe in the need for strategic planning as well as a need for operational or corporate plans. I also think that they are separate but related processes. One is a Council responsibility, and the other belongs to Staff. How they are integrated and implemented is the magic part, and, not an easy task to achieve.
Does the organization need forty-three (43) new priorities? Nothing is strategic about a collective wish list of twenty or more “Council Priorities.” This is handed to departments (often barely able to carry out their day-to-day functions) to become department priorities. Worse, these priorities are usually established a few months after a new Council is elected before those who have never served on Council understand their role and what local governments do.
I am advocating to keep it simple, with a clear division between Council (strategic direction) and Staff (operational implementation). Rather than generating a Wishlist, perhaps Council’s time would be better spent early in the term, getting to know each other and why they decided to seek office. They should define some collective values and goals for their time in office. Council should decide what they would like the corporation to focus on (social issues, community safety, transportation, business development) and how they would like the corporation to conduct business. These modest steps and strategic directions are enough to begin to influence and direct the corporate and operational planning process.
Council will always have new priorities and a desire to shift the focus of the local government to those things they feel are important. This is an essential part of our democracy. The most we can accomplish is to nudge the machine in a new course because, in the end, roads need to be built and maintained, grass cut, sewage treated, and permits issued, and it all takes a lot of the resources we have in place. Let’s be honest about that.
Every Council comprises a group of individuals from a broad cross-section of the community with different experiences and aspirations. Getting this group to work together on a collective vision and goals is difficult, but that’s the “strategic” part of the process. It needs to be focussed, articulating community values and aspirations (as interpreted by Council), goals, and a consideration of a limited number of true priorities (hopefully considering those of past Councils still on the books but not yet implemented). The Council’s Strategic Plan or Priorities Statement shouldn’t be a patchwork quilt with multiple priorities or a Wishlist. There is nothing “strategic” about adding many new priorities to an already under-resourced organization.
Keep the “strategic process” simple and meaningful, like your New Year’s Resolution. There is a place for complexity, timelines, resource allocations, and KPIs. They belong in the corporate or operational plan as a means of implementing the strategic direction provided by the Council.