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Charting Your Future Part 2: Conducting a Strategic Planning Retreat

Charting Your Future Part 2: Conducting a Strategic Planning Retreat

This is the second of a two part discussion relating to strategic planning, and defining a “future” for your county or city. The first part, Strategic Planning: Mission/Vision-Goals-Objectives, was published in the November 2014. A critical aspect of strategic plan is that of creating mission and vision statements for your jurisdiction, and establishing goals and objectives by which to achieve that vision. In this article I will describe the role of retreats in the development of a strategic plan.


Contrary to popular belief, elected officials do not have autonomous powers. Their powers are derived from the electorate and they are expected to serve the collective interests of those who’ve put them in office. One of the realities of the 21st century is that the citizenry expects governments to be dynamic, to foster positive change and to anticipate future needs, and to position their governments to address those needs before they arise. Just as the average parent strives to prepare their children for emancipation, the citizenry expects their governments to similarly prepare itself for the future. This governmental process is often referred to as strategic planning: the development of a vision for the future and the establishment of goals and objectives to achieve that vision.

The process of strategic planning is fairly complex. It is a lengthy process, one that requires a number of measured steps, and one that should engage the stakeholders/citizenry to be successful. For most jurisdictions, counties and cities alike, the most effective means of developing a strategic plan is to have a retreat. Following is a brief description of the key steps in initiating a retreat and creating a strategic plan.

Step One: Secure a Consensus Regarding the Need for a Strategic Plan

The most important first step is for the members of the governing body to recognize the need and the value of establishing a strategic plan. Normally, the catalyst for such a determination is either an elected official or a key appointed official getting the ball rolling by initiating a discussion of the need for a strategic plan. Generally such discussions occur after the elected body has worked together for 9-12 months and has gone through the process of developing and approving a budget. Proponents of strategic planning often couch the discussion in the context of the changing demographics of the jurisdiction, increasing financial limitations, changing citizen expectations, and such other factors as may impact the nature and character of the jurisdiction. Advocates for a strategic plan often emphasize the importance of identifying the future needs of the county or city; the vision of the jurisdiction and the means of addressing those needs. The strategic plan should be dynamic, should challenge the status quo, and should provide a road map for an improved future. Ideally it should position the county or city to meet anticipated needs for the next 10-20 years.

In obtaining a consensus of the need for a strategic plan the advocates must convey what a strategic plan is, the timeframe that it will cover, and the process that will be used to develop and possibly modify the plan. It will be imperative that there is a strong leader among the advocates and there be a consensus amongst the elected officials regarding the importance to the citizenry of developing such a plan, and the process that will lead to its development.

Step Two: Select and Retain a Facilitator

Strategic planning for most jurisdictions should not be done in-house, but rather a skilled outside facilitator should be retained to guide the process. While most counties and cities may feel that they have sufficient in-house expertise to develop a strategic plan, the reality is that the objectivity, experience, and skill that professional facilitators contribute to the strategic planning process greatly outweighs the costs of using an outsider. In retaining a facilitator, elected officials may wish to seek recommendations from neighboring counties and cities that have had recent facilitated retreats. They may also wish to contact MRSC for a list of facilitators. If the jurisdiction has a chief appointed official (e.g. city manager, county administrator), that individual should contact their colleagues for recommendations.

A key concern regarding retaining a facilitator is generally the cost. Recent experience indicates that a professional facilitator can cost between several thousand to as much as ten to fifteen thousand dollars. The costs of the facilitator will depend on the amount of preparation work required, the complexity of stakeholder/citizenry engagement, the location and duration of the retreat during which the plan will be developed, follow-up reports, and a host of other factors. As alluded to above, the appropriate venue for developing a strategic plan is a formal retreat. Such retreats are generally conducted outside of the county courthouse or city hall, preferably in other less formal public spaces such as community centers, public libraries, or even local community colleges. While some jurisdictions have successfully conducted retreats some distance from their jurisdiction, there tends to be media criticism regarding the lack of accessibility for the public and the costs. It is important to remember that in developing a strategic plan it is critical that the process be open to the citizens and to stakeholders and the value of their engagement in the process.

On a final note, one of the key responsibilities of the facilitator is to develop the process for developing the strategic plan and to prepare the agenda for the retreat. That process and the proposed agenda should be reviewed by either the full governing body or a committee thereof.

Step Three: Assess the Current Condition of the County/City

Once the process is underway, a key step is that of assessing the current conditions of the county or city. You can’t develop a strategic plan for the future until you know where you are at the present time. That assessment requires that the elected officials step back and objectively evaluate the jurisdiction’s strengths and weaknesses, the nature of the community, the changes that are occurring, and the citizenry’s expectations for the jurisdiction’s future. The first source of such an evaluation is the county or city’s own staff. Department heads generally are aware of service deficiencies, inadequacies within the various infrastructure systems, pressures brought on by changes in the demographics, as well as the citizenry’s complaints. They are also aware of where the jurisdiction is performing well and where it may be deficient, and how that county or city stacks up against similar jurisdictions.

A second source of input should be that of the citizenry and key stakeholder interests. Mechanisms for deriving such feedback include citizen and business surveys, town hall meetings, and service club presentations. Elected officials should reach out to key shareholders for the vital input necessary to assess their jurisdiction’s conditions. It should also be recognized that major elements of the business community generally may have a better sense of the dynamics of change than do elected officials. Additionally, it should be determined whether the citizenry is in general satisfied with their elected officials.

Examples of strengths might include:

  1. Responsiveness to citizenry concerns
  2. Use of citizen boards and commissions
  3. Engagement with stakeholders
  4. Ability to anticipate changing needs and respond thereto
  5. Strong fiscal conditions

Examples of weaknesses might include:

  1. Divisive governing authority
  2. Decaying and inadequate infrastructure
  3. Unresponsive staff
  4. Inadequate services and slow response times
  5. Inadequate revenue base with which to meet necessary service costs

Finally, one can’t assess current conditions without determining whether conditions are changing. Questions such as whether the citizen’s values are changing; is there a changing level of population growth placing differing demands on services and facilities; whether there are changing demographics, must all be asked in assessing changing conditions. 

After the assessment is completed a report should be prepared set the stage at the beginning of the retreat.

Step Four: Determine the Duration of the Strategic Plan

A strategic plan is intended to position a county or city to address the needs of the jurisdiction for some foreseeable time in the future. Traditionally, strategic plans range from 10 to 20 years, with built in processes for review and modification. A strategic plan should be dynamic and recognize that unforeseen changes can and will necessitate modifications of the plan. For larger cities and counties, most strategic plans are developed with a 15 to 20 year time horizon. For smaller ones, especially those undergoing substantial change, the plans are for no more than 10 years. Prior to the retreat, with the guidance of the facilitator, the elected officials should determine the duration of the strategic plan.

Step Five: With the Guidance of the Facilitator Determine the Retreat Process to be followed in Developing the Strategic Plan

Most retreats last 2-3 days and are designed to: review or adopt a mission statement, develop a vision for the future of the county or city, adopt goals, objectives, and measureable deliverables. The end result is the development of a 10-20 year strategic plan, subject to periodic review and updating. The key elements are:

  1. Strengths and Weaknesses: Review the strengths and weaknesses of the jurisdiction, and develop a preliminary understanding as to where the county or city should concentrate efforts to address its deficiencies and build upon its strengths. This presentation should be delivered by the chief administrative officer of the jurisdiction; the chair of the board of county commissioners or the mayor.
  2. Stakeholder Input: Receive a summary of the input from the citizenry or major stakeholders regarding their perceptions relating to the future directions of the county or city. This will validate the importance of the role of these groups as well as reinforce the connection between the elected officials and their constituencies.
  3. Mission Statement: Most counties and larger cities have a mission statement that reads something like “it is the mission of XYZ County to provide a safe and secure environment, encourage balanced economic growth, protect the environment, and nurture the provision of responsive services so as to ensure a high quality of life for its citizenry,” or a variation thereof. The mission statement outlines and defines the aspirations of the jurisdiction in the context of its overall responsibilities. It is basically a statement of priorities for addressing the needs of its constituents. The mission statement sets the frame of reference for establishing the county or city’s vision for the future as well as its goals and objectives. While the mission statement can be altered over time, it is in fact the jurisdiction’s statement of purpose. 
  4. Vision: A major strategic planning element of a retreat is to define a vision for the future. That vision normally reflects the strengths and weaknesses of the county or city, changing conditions, and evolving constituent/stakeholder expectations. Examples of vision elements might include, the desire for a more economically diverse population; reduced congestion and single occupant vehicle usage; increased commercial and economic activity; increased financial sustainability, and encouragement of more healthy lifestyles. The vision basically defines the character of the jurisdiction that the elected officials and its stakeholders feel should be achieved at some point in the future. Each of those elements feed back to the mission statement and reflects the consensus of the elected officials regarding their jurisdiction’s future.
  5. Goals: For each element of the vision, the elected officials should develop specific goals. If, for example, the vision is to encourage a more economically diverse population, addressing the needs of those with a more moderate incomes, then a number of specific goals can be defined. Those goals might include incentives for lower cost housing, encouragement of increased lower wage employment opportunities, increased availability of social services, etc. Each of these goals taken separately contribute to achieving a specific element of the vision. Individually they may not encourage the desired outcome, but collectively they can, if achieved, bring about the end result. 
  6. Objectives: The objectives are those elements that bring about achievement of the goal. If for instance the goal is to encourage an increased supply of affordable housing, the objective might be achieved by zoning changes that allow higher level multi-family housing in exchange for a given percentage of affordable housing units, or smaller lot residential developments to accommodate smaller  and more affordable homes, zoning for mobile home parks, or even taxation concessions.

The outcome of this process is for the elected officials to develop a strategic plan to meet the anticipated needs of the county or city for the future. It is also to condition the elected officials to change their time horizon in policy-making from the short- to the long-term, one that spans the anticipated term of public service of the then current decision makers.

Step Six: Determine How Frequently the Plan Will be Reviewed and Updated, and the Deliverables Quantified

The strategic plan must be deemed to be a priority of the governing authority, a living document and one deemed to be a reflection by virtue of the mission and vision statements of a reflection of the future direction of the county or city. The elected officials should determine expected short- and long-term measurable results and be committed to satisfying the strategic plan. Each year, either a committee of the governing authority or the body as a whole should review the deliverables and determine progress towards the goals. Senior staff should be involved in the annual review and their advice sought for modifications of the goals and objectives. Every three to five years the elected officials should undertake a comprehensive review of the strategic plan to determine where modifications are warranted and whether evolving conditions warrant substantive modification to the plan. As the strategic plan undergoes significant modification the governing authority may wish to consider changing the time horizon for achievement of the county or city’s vision. The governing authority should develop a mechanism to communicate success in achieving the plan’s goals and objectives to the citizenry/stakeholders, and engage them in the review process.

Step Seven: Implement the Plan

Adoption of a strategic plan is only the first, albeit an important step in defining the future of a county or city. After the retreat, and possibly with the guidance of the facilitator and senior staff, the governing authority should determine those ordinances that are required to implement the plan as well as the fiscal resources that should be committed to achieving the goals and objectives. Future budgets should specifically identify strategic plan expenditures and specify the measurable results that are expected. As previously recommended, an annual review of the deliverables should be conducted by either the entire governing body or by a subcommittee. The results of that review should be referenced in the budget message and related to proposed expenditures for further implementation. Implementation should also recognize that the dynamics of a jurisdiction may change over time and that previously determined goals and objectives may need to be modified.


A significant responsibility of local government officials is to anticipate the future needs of their jurisdiction and to be prepared to address those needs. Concurrently, it is also the responsibility of those officials to seek to improve the quality of life of their citizenry and to enhance the livability of their community. The development of a strategic plan is a complex process; one that should engage the citizenry and stakeholders in the setting of priorities, and one that requires a commitment on the part of elected officials to be committed to seeing the plan through to fruition. Initiating the process generally requires a committed elected official and the willingness of others to participating in the development of a strategic plan. The key element of the process should be a retreat, orchestrated by an outside facilitator, able to assist in the development of the jurisdiction’s mission and vision statements and the determination of goals and objectives. The retreat process should also define specific deliverables to measure progress in achieving the objectives. Vital to success of strategic planning is an ongoing review process of those deliverables as well as periodic revisions to the plan. Throughout the process, the citizenry, the media and major interest groups should be involved.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Stan Finkelstein

About Stan Finkelstein

Stan Finkelstein wrote for MRSC as a guest author for several years, and he also served as the Executive Director for the Association of Washington Cities from 1990 to 2009.

Stan passed away in 2020.