How to Write a Strategic Plan for your City
By: Scott Burkhead
The toughest part of writing any strategic plan is to avoid getting sucked into the swamp. You are writing a High Altitude plan, not a things-to-do tactical plan. Do not get mired in the details. It is not a summary of accomplishments nor is it a dream sheet. Constraints, reasons why we can’t do certain things, hurt feelings, bruised egos are all part of your reward for developing the plan. Never fear, be strong. There is a rainbow at the end of the process – an opportunity to move your city from a “We can’t do this because . . ?”, to “We can do this if we. . . ?” attitude. Accomplish this and you’ll earn the gratitude of multiple generations. You may also annoy some people.
Be clear from the beginning that Strategic Planning is done to carry out a clear, predetermined objective. And always, your city’s Brand is front and center. Cities cannot have an effective strategy without understanding what sort of shaping needs to be done to audiences’ perceptions, and this is done with the brand as your primary tool. The way your brand is used in service to the strategy will be a constant component as your plan develops.
Every strategic plan should cover three broad areas:
1) How the strategy allows you to reach the objectives- It is easy to get tactics confused with strategy. Creating a new logo is not a strategy. Understanding the link between the city’s objectives and the creation of new graphics requires strategy.
2) Current situation- One of the most difficult tasks most people have is hearing – especially if what they are hearing is different from what they believe. The best situation reviews will be done by trained, independent observers (researchers) able to bring unbiased analysis to the research.
3) How to produce the desired outcome- (Once the Strategy is outlined you’ll need a Tactical Plan to actually carry out the program). Strategy drives tactics. One of the most powerful strategies is the Brand Positioning, developed early in the process. Design, advertising, promotional tactics all must reflect the positioning. (Regardless of how funny the spot maybe you’ll never see a McDonald’s ad featuring cute cows).
As you develop your plan, get input from a wide range of stakeholders. At this stage don’t expect to get much that you can actually use. The input is important as a way for others to feel they are included (It’s their city too, after all!) and to get reactions on the more controversial parts of your plan. Let’s look at some hypothetical examples of strategic plan development.
The city needs to attract new employers to add jobs. Research indicates that because of your location an hours drive from a large city, access to river-based recreation opportunities, less than ten minutes from an interstate, and your culture -you are a Historically Agricultural based community – there is an opportunity to attract mid-sized package goods companies specializing in organic farm to table frozen foods.
*Develop policies and programs that draw people to the center city.
*Encourage spectator sports events from home based teams or in concert with larger cities.
*Attract 4 new clean-tech employers representing 600 new jobs paying an average of $60k or more annually by the end of 2018.
Find a unique position based on existing strengths and differences and rebrand the city based on Who you are Now and your intent to:
*Develop several sub-plans that support better urban planning including expanded green spaces. Encourage additional cultural activities including homegrown and special visiting programs. (this will be a much longer list)
*Create a location for shared workspaces that can serve as an incubator for anyone, including recent college grads who have a business idea.
*Offer a housing bonus for tech or other workers considering moving to your city.
*Partner with County Technical College to offer subsidized courses in software development for manufacturing.
* Meet with your State Economic Development team and identify 20 potential prospect companies.
*Ask State level ED for suggestions on partnering on presentations, trade shows, and targeted outreach.
Articulating the positioning and rebranding will require professional help. Given your responsibility for developing the plan you will be able to input the branding agency allowing them to move rapidly. Present early draft of plans to county and state economic development teams and incorporate comments and their contributions into the plan.
You may want to develop an outline of this with a rough budget to have on hand when you present the strategy. Someone is going to demand to know what this will cost no matter how you frame the early discussions.
Strategic Planning for cites is a shifting mix of science and art. Understanding of the problem to be solved, and deciding what is to be achieved are mostly science (Research, History, Review of current assets). Once the decision of what is to be accomplished (Objective) is determined, science has to make room for art (Strategic Positioning, Branding).
If your city is considering an economic development push, or the current program is producing disappointing results contact us. We may be able to offer some suggestions. Interested in learning more about strategic planning for cities? Join our webinar, Developing a strategic growth plan for smaller cities. The webinar is scheduled for October 17 at 1:00 pm EST.