The first plan
A few days ago, one of my colleagues sent me a notice from the City of Langford, BC, noting that Council was working on its first strategic plan. Langford is a mid-sized city on Vancouver Island in the capital region of BC. Given the population, I was a bit surprised to learn this is council’s first strategic plan.
There’s an adage that the best time to do something was last year, and the second-best time is right now. I ascribe to this when it comes to developing a clear statement of success for any municipal council.
In my mind, the strategic plan is the guiding document for a group of elected officials and provides high-level guidance for staff. At a time where demands for new and enhanced services are growing faster than the population is, but available revenue is not growing that fast, there are always tough choices for a council and a community to make.
This is where the strategic plan comes in. I often tell councils that the strategic plan is a reflection of who you are, not as much as it’s a reflection of who you actually are. It’s a collective expression of success for a council, and it’s something for the council to be held accountable to each year and then at the next election time.
The best plans are easy for people to read and understand, meaning they are more likely actually to do so. In that way, the readers learn more about their own community. The same goes for businesses and community organizations, all of which are affected by the choices and decisions that a council makes.
As noted at the beginning, Langford is embarking on its first strategic plan. My prediction is that this plan will be good, but it won’t be perfect. That’s ok. The plan is an expectation based on what we all know today. Nobody knows when a pandemic will arise or a war in Europe will occur, but that doesn’t let leaders abdicate their responsibility to plan thoughtfully for the long-term in their community.
Indeed, we all know that the environment will shift between now and the next election in BC (2026). Langham city council is laying its cards on the table and saying, in essence, ‘this is who we are and what we stand for’. I think that’s to be celebrated. I also think it’s to be copied by other municipalities, whether large or small, rural or urban. All councils need to commit to identifying and advancing a shared vision of success.
Staff also appreciate knowing what council wants. It prevents inefficient scattergun approaches to service delivery. Council members probably appreciate the plan, too, because it puts their campaign promises – or at least some of them – into action over four years or longer.
I think we’ve worked on more than 30 municipal strategic plans from BC to NB to NT over the past couple of years. While they all differ significantly in content – the identification of success for a particular community – they don’t differ in structure. The best plans provide an answer to the question, “What does council want to see change over their term?” The transition is then made to management, who gets to answer the question, “How do we achieve what council wants?”
Another acknowledgment about the best strategic plans is that they’re about change. What’s the difference this council intends to make in the community? This means that the vast bulk of any municipality – Langham included – does not appear in the strategic plan because it’s not about change. That work is about delivering the programs and services citizens have enjoyed for many years.
If you’re on a council, how did your own strategic plan come into being? Does it reflect that shared vision of success?
As always, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org .