From Vision to Implementation and Evaluation: The Changing State of Strategic Planning

By Gordon, Gerald | Public Management, September 2005 | Go to article overview
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From Vision to Implementation and Evaluation: The Changing State of Strategic Planning

Gordon, Gerald, Public Management

More than a decade ago, local government managers were just beginning to fully apply the concept of strategic planning to their operations. In 1993, ICMA published a text entitled Strategic Planning for Local Governments. That volume examined state-of-the-art strategic planning, outlined how the process was being applied in communities throughout the United States, and highlighted some of the lessons learned.

This summer, ICMA published the sequel, which looks back over the past 12 years to see if the lessons of the earlier research still held true as well as to identify the new lessons. In short, what is the current state of the art?

The short answers are these: the lessons of 1993 are still valid for communities to keep in mind as they embark on strategic planning exercises; there are indeed new lessons to be learned; and the state of the art has evolved in the communities cited with a business-like approach.

Most of the earlier lessons dealt with process and format. "Do's and don'ts" became clear as plans were developed and implemented. The additional lessons of 2005 extend the reach of strategic planning processes and documents. They are now more inclusive of other local planning efforts and have a greater impact upon them. Further, the plans now have a greater reach into the day-to-day activities of the local government's employees, and they increasingly have an impact on performance and resource allocation decisions.


In the early 1990s, local governments were just beginning to emulate the strategic planning processes of their private sector counterparts. Focusing on immediate and short-term problems superseded the orientation to a longer-term vision. Local governments beginning to apply these concepts did so more as extensions of comprehensive and other planning processes.

Ten years ago there was a need to promote the planning process locally. That remains a community activity today, but the stated emphasis now is less likely to be on explaining what will happen and more on encouraging citizens, press, and other stakeholders' involvement in the process. Concerns about planning committees' inclusiveness have evolved into the scheduling of town hall sessions, call-in radio shows, and e-mail sites to encourage active citizen input.

Local governments of the mid-90s were properly focused on ensuring the most thorough possible environmental scan or situation analysis. While this clearly remains a primary component of both the process and the final document, growing attention is being paid to the nexus between the plan and the day-to-day operations of local government, and even to group and individual performance standards and reviews.


Local governments are forever in a planning mode. Budget reviews and authorizations are forms of planning, as are comprehensive plans, and other agency plans. These plans run the risk of being independently developed and without the benefit of a comprehensive overall strategy. A related concern is that the separate plans have often been related to each other but not necessarily with the overall plan for the community.

This was recognized and addressed in the three-year plan (2003 to 2005) of Grand Rapids, Michigan:

Several documents represent the strategic direction of the city, including the city's Mission Statement, Fiscal Plan, Performance Measurement Plan, Three-Year Strategic Plan, and various departmental, technical, and community strategic plans. Together, these documents form the strategic blueprint for the city to provide equitable access to urban life for all citizens.

The 2005 research indicates an awareness of these potential problems and addresses the incorporation of all plans into a common process with overlapping documents. A strategic plan that envisions a given future for a community, for example, becomes the guiding light for the strategies and tactics necessary to achieve that plan.

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From Vision to Implementation and Evaluation: The Changing State of Strategic Planning


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