Strategic Governance: How Municipalities Can Envision and Achieve a Desired Future
The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.
The role of strategic governance is to help leaders and citizens create a desired future – intentionally. Key aspects of the process are to involve all stakeholders in envisioning that future, then to manage the present so that decisions and efforts made each day move the community towards that vision.
People at all levels of local government make decisions every day that have strategic consequences. So, it is essential that everyone in government be involved and engaged in shaping future directions to ensure that their decision making serves those priorities. This happens when communities deploy strategic thinking and leadership skills for use by all government personnel.
STRATEGIC GOVERNANCE DEFINED
Strategic governance consists of two separate but related ongoing efforts. The first has to do with engaging citizens and officials in codifying what matters most to their community and in envisioning a desired future in which those values and outcomes are attained and preserved. This is strategic thinking; it aims to help people decide what to achieve.
The second activity involves managing efforts to make that vision a reality. It entails framing and managing strategic initiatives as well as the day-to-day efforts of running a municipality. This is operational governance; it aims at ensuring that the right things get done at the right time for the right expenditure of tax dollars, i.e., how to achieve it.
Without both, a municipality will fail to serve its citizens fully. If a community successfully envisions a desired future but fails to take relevant steps to make it a reality, it won't happen. Conversely, if municipal officials simply forge ahead – perhaps "doing what's always been done" – without a clear framework for what they're trying to accomplish, there is little likelihood they will successfully meet citizen expectations. As the old adage says, "If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there."
THE CYCLE OF STRATEGIC GOVERNANCE
Strategic governance enables communities to understand their past, envision the future, and manage the present as a way to get there.
No plan, however strategic, can remain static, because we live in a constantly changing world. So this process calls for plans to be refreshed at least annually to serve as relevant and useful guideposts. Also, plans are more likely to be achieved if people believe they are realistic and match the reality they deal with daily.
A STEP-BY-STEP APPROACH
The process of doing strategic thinking and operational governance involves 10 activities and their associated work products, each of which can be accomplished by people who may not have done extensive strategic planning in the past. These phased steps create a framework through which department heads, selectmen, and other town officials can structure their thinking and efforts for maximum success. The work products from these activities include:
- A defined work plan and timeline for the overall strategic governance process.
- A set of historical dashboards that shows trends in service demand, spending, staffing, key initiatives, etc. for each department.
- An environmental scan to anticipate key factors from within the town and from other sources (federal and state regulations, professional regulations and new requirements, etc.) that might well have an impact on community needs and departmental operations.
- A SWOT analysis of external opportunities and threats that might impact each department along with departmental strengths and weaknesses that should be better managed.
- A dashboard reflecting current key performance measures for each department.
- A vision for where each department should be heading and what it should achieve over a specified time period.
- A set of strategic initiatives that would be required to fulfill that vision (including those that would be required by other departments to support their efforts).
- A vision dashboard reflecting all the outcomes each department wants to achieve over a multi-year planning period.
- Strategic plans with associated budgets for those years.
- A strategic plan presentation and document covering all these elements that are publicly presented to and discussed with the selectmen and shared with citizens.
WHAT EACH ACTIVITY ACHIEVES
Each of the 10 activities plays a specific role in ensuring that the past remains a reference point for the future, and that current-day activities remain in service to what a community wants for its future.
THE HALLMARKS OF THIS APPROACH
Strategic governance differs from more traditional planning and management efforts because it is:
- Rooted in meaningful data.
- Promotes strategic thinking, not just planning.
- Reinforces the municipality’s culture and values.
- Empowers all involved to do their best.
- Links the strategic with the operational and measurable.
- Provides a repeatable process that communities can learn to do on their own.
CASE STUDY: TOWN OF AMHERST, NEW HAMPSHIRE
??The town of Amherst is located in the southern tier of New Hampshire in Hillsborough County on the western edge of the Merrimack Valley and the eastern edge of the Monadnock region. With a population of approximately 12,000 residents and a land area of nearly 35 square miles, Amherst is a growing suburban-rural community that has successfully maintained many desirable historic and rural characteristics.
OVERCOMING ISSUES THROUGH STRATEGIC GOVERNANCE
Prior to adopting strategic governance in 2013, Amherst’s town government had endured three default budgets in five years. This was, in part, due to:
- A lack of clearly defined issues and outcomes, which made justifying expenditures hard.
- Citizens' perceived a lack of transparency in town government.
- The Board of Selectmen focused on micro-management rather than on higher-level strategic thinking and operational governance.?
In 2013, the selectmen embraced the idea of strategic governance, which was introduced to the town by selectman, Mike Akillian. Following a clearly prescribed process, town departments (Fire, Police, EMS, DPW, Community Development, Recreation, Town Clerk, Town Offices (administrator, Tax, Finance) along with the public library developed strategic plans by completing the 10 work activities in just four months (May-August). They have also used these plans to underpin their annual operating plans and budgets for each year since then.
CONSISTENTLY POSITIVE RESULTS
The changes in town governance and in citizen support have been significant:
- Since 2014, citizens have passed all town budgets and virtually all key warrants by a 2:1 margin and often by a 3:1 margin.
- More authority and responsibility has migrated down to department heads, while more timely information flows up to the town administrator and selectmen.
- Citizens always know where things stand and are very pleased with town government performance.
- Of the 31 municipalities in Hillsborough County, Amherst continues to have the 7th lowest tax rate (lower than 24 others) while providing excellent town services. This represents an excellent value for taxpayers.
- Other town committees, commissions, and boards have embraced strategic governance, and it has served as the basis for strategic planning of Amherst Village, the central village of Amherst's historic district, the largest such district in New Hampshire.
PLANNING AND LEADERSHIP FOR THE LONGER TERM
Department heads, selectmen, and the town administrator used strategic thinking as the basis for multi-year initiatives, operational plans, and budgets, and counted the FY15 planning cycle as the first of a multi-year planning process. In public meetings, they used real-time tools to debate and clarify tradeoffs and impacts of various strategic scenarios for taxpayers. They also used other communications approaches to engage a wide array of citizens and groups across Amherst so that residents understood the process, the reasons for it, and the rationale for goal setting and decision making.
Most important, government officials began measuring and reporting on progress towards all goals, which are stated as citizen-oriented outcomes, so that residents can clearly see how they benefit from initiatives and investments.
KEEPING PLANS RELEVANT – ANNUALLY
In each subsequent year, all plans have been refreshed in late spring to account for changes either within Amherst or those likely to impact the town from outside. Refreshed plans are presented annually to the selectmen, who use these plans as the basis for their annual operational planning and budgeting and for explaining to residents their intent and the elements that comprise the proposed budget. Department heads are now quite self sufficient in managing their strategic thinking and in presenting publicly. (All Amherst strategic plans can be found at http://www.amherstnh.gov/board-selectmen/pages/strategic-planning-budget-process.)
VERTICAL AND HORIZONTAL PERSPECTIVES
The strategic plans of the various town departments reflect the vertical perspectives of functional groups into which Amherst’s town government is organized to do work. But there are broader, more horizontal, categories that, together, shape the quality of life for Amherst residents. ?The Board of Selectmen have framed what they believe to be the broader strategic priorities of the town that they will use as the basis for their decision making over the next several years. These include:
- Public safety (Police, Fire, EMS)
- Infrastructure/Built Environment
- Financial Condition
- Community/ Economic Development
- Town Character
IMPROVING MASTER PLANNING AND CAPITAL IMPROVEMENTS PLANNING IN THE PROCESS
Strategic governance can also greatly enhance a community's master planning efforts. When a community is clear about its strategic goals, its planning board inherits a broad framework to use as a basis for its land use planning. Too often, planning boards struggle to get significant public engagement to define their community's long-term goals, which makes creating an appropriate multi-year land use plan that much harder. Most planning boards have neither the skills nor staff to tackle strategic thinking on their own. This often leads to master plans that fall short of their potential usefulness and the dollars invested in the process.
The strategic governance process helps communities frame the larger strategic goals, thereby enabling the planning boards to focus on their strengths in land use planning and aligning ordinances and project implementation with those long-term plans in a well-timed fashion. It also aids in thinking through the priorities and timing of capital expenditures because they are tied closely to clearly framed strategic initiatives.
CONCLUSION: A FRAMEWORK FOR SMART DECISION MAKING
Strategic governance helps create a context for annual planning and budgeting. Everyone in town government knows what longer-term goals they're working for, so the plans and budgets for each year are driven by how much progress will be made towards those goals. This agreed-upon framework for the future also helps dull individual agendas, because there is clear consensus regarding the goals to be achieved. It also empowers more distributed and effective decision making throughout municipal government, because everyone knows the goals, the initiatives, and the budgets that have been approved by the electorate – all of which can enhance their daily decision making. This keeps activities and progress aligned with the broader goals and citizen expectations.
Ultimately, the power of strategic governance is in engaging citizens and municipal officials in a collaborative venture of attaining the future they want at a cost they can afford.
Mike Akillian has over 35 years of experience in applying strategic planning, marketing, management, communications, and decision support to help organizations, and municipal government, prosper. Mike lives in Amherst where he has served on the Ways & Means Committee, the Capital Improvements Planning Committee, the Superintendent of School’s strategic planning team, and as a selectman and vice chair of the Board of Selectmen.
Mike has a strong background in education. He has served as vice president of an executive-education firm training clients such as the Harvard Business School faculty and executives at General Electric, Pillsbury, and Perdue Farms in using technology for informed decision making. The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges has adopted his refinements to traditional strategic planning as best practices for its 1900-member organizations and 40,000 individual members. Together with Sarah Marchant, Mike serves at the Center for Strategic Governance (www.strat-gov.com), a public service company that aims to help municipalities and schools attain the futures they desire.