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Data-Driven Strategic Planning

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tanya Settles
February 16, 2024

Every year, local governments invest resources, time and energy into strategic planning, and at the end of the process, they have a beautiful and aspirational document to share with the community and inspire staff. Then the plan goes on a shelf and gathers dust until someone decides years down the line it is time to run through the process again. It doesn’t have to be this way, but the process needs improvement for a strategic plan to be usable, sustainable and something that moves local government toward its vision of the future. 

Ideally, a strategic plan is a living document that is subject to change and adjust and uses metrics throughout the life span of the plan to measure success. A well constructed strategic plan is more than simply aspirational. Data-driven strategic plans use information and analysis to define a strategic priority and identify challenges and barriers. Goals are designed to overcome those barriers to achieve something meaningful. Moreover, strategic plans are carefully articulated promises, and this is what makes strategic planning scary. Being aspirational is one thing. Writing well-defined goals, objectives and performance measures with target outcomes is quite another. 

Many local governments confirm mission, vision and strategic priorities and these elements are nearly always present. Sometimes there are specific goals and objectives; often there are not. Even more uncommon are performance measures and metrics. All too often, the result is a visually beautiful document that consists of a “to-do” list of aspirational goals that reflect needs and desires of the community and government itself. This is a great place to start, but the problem is that for a lot of cities and municipalities, this is where the process stops. Rarely do municipal governments take the step to include an implementation strategy that supports the aspirations of a strategic plan, and it is not always clear who is accountable for plan execution. Community members and governing bodies are left asking the question, “is this feasible and sustainable” with no clear answer.      

Solution: Data-Driven Strategic Planning and Implementation

Confirming the mission, vision and values of an organization is a great starting point. The rest of the process focuses on what goes in the middle between vision and goal attainment, and this is where data, incremental measurement and analysis can help point local governments toward success. Here are some key steps to consider once strategic priorities are identified:

  • Avoid long-term strategic plans. Strategic plans that attempt to forecast more than 36 months are more susceptible to failure. Needs, conditions and the external environment change rapidly.  Consequently, cities may find the strategic plan is out of date before the end of its lifespan.
  • Look at your data. Ask, what data exists for each strategic priority that establishes a baseline measurement? Then identify what data needs to be collected to fill the gaps.   
  • Set Goals and Develop Objectives. A good guideline is to focus on SMART goals, that is, goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time bound. If any of the proposed goals can’t be defined using the SMART model, consider moving those goals out of the strategic plan.
  • Align strategic priorities and goals. Each goal should have a place under at least one strategic priority. Each strategic priority should have at least one goal.
  • Develop metrics. Think of the key performance indicators (KPIs) for the strategic plan.  Performance metrics should connect to the SMART goals; if they don’t, they probably don’t belong in the strategic plan.
  • Plan for incremental measurement and review. Plan to incrementally measure performance metrics rather than waiting until the end of the plan’s life span to see if you met your goals.  Governments are dynamic and can be impacted by unforeseen internal and external changes. With incremental measurements, governments can adjust the path when necessary. 
  • Develop a companion implementation strategy. This document accompanies the strategic plan itself. The implementation strategy should identify detailed actions, timelines, responsible parties and take into consideration resource requirements, including appropriations requests, necessary to meet goals. This is also a good place to examine equity and equality in strategic plan execution. 
  • Measure, measure and measure some more. Measure performance indicators at regular intervals and build planned measurement into the strategic plan. This iterative measurement strategy should include quantitative metrics, but it is also a good idea to collect qualitative data from the people responsible for execution of the plan and the people who are impacted by the strategic priorities and goals. 

When governments incorporate these steps in developing and executing a strategic plan, goals become attainable rather than aspirational. Embrace data-driven strategic plans that support evidence-based decision making to allow local governments to be more responsive to community needs and ultimately more effective in achieving desired outcomes. 

Author:  Tanya Settles is the CEO of Paradigm Public Affairs, LLC.  Tanya’s areas of work include relationship building between local governments and communities, restorative justice, and the impacts of natural and human-caused disasters on at-risk populations.  Tanya can be reached at [email protected].  The opinions in this column and any mistakes are hers alone.

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