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Charting a Future Course for Your County or City

Strategic Planning: Mission/Vision-Goals-Objectives

November 2014

By Stan Finkelstein, Chair, Washington State Public Works Board

Note to Readers: This is the first of a two-part discussion. This article will address why strategic planning is important; what it is and how it differs from traditional policy making, and how to initiate the process. In a subsequent article the process will be described and how counties and cities of varying size can undertake to successfully develop a long-range strategic plan.


The reality is that in this day and age the citizenry, for the most part, desires dynamic local governments. They abhor lethargy and they want to see positive change. They want their elected officials to position their jurisdictions to anticipate future needs. For the past 6 years most Washington counties and cities have been “treading water” as they've struggled to sustain vital services; address critical capital needs; and respond to evolving citizen demands in an environment characterized by shrinking resources, inordinately high unemployment rates and increased levels of citizen unrest. Most local governments have had to focus on addressing current needs without the luxury of being able to engage in any form of meaningful long-range planning.

Current evidence indicates that the national economy is on the upswing. National unemployment rates have fallen below 6 percent; inflation is under control and the national budget deficit is less than half of the level of just 5 years ago. At the state level, there has been a significant uptick in sales tax receipts, an increase in population growth and in housing starts and in economic activity. While not all jurisdictions have benefited from the turnaround in the state's economy, the state is clearly coming out of the Great Recession and many of our local governments are experiencing a fiscal recovery.

With the return to a more stabilized economy, our county and city officials are now able to turn their attention to their jurisdiction's future. They can focus on what they want their county or city to be like in 10, 15, or 20 years; and how they can position the county of city to achieve those visions. This is what constitutes strategic planning; anticipating the jurisdiction's future needs; positioning the jurisdiction to address those needs and developing a vision for what they want that future to be.

Why Engage in Strategic Planning?

Our local governments do not exist in a static world! Demographics, citizen expectations, and economic conditions change. Additionally, local governments encounter changing state/local relations as well as inter-jurisdictional issues. Many elected officials recognize that that the geo-political environment is rapidly changing and it is critical that general purpose units of local government, counties and cities, position themselves to be able to define their future in a manner that best reflects the desires of the citizenry.

What then is “strategic planning”? Strategic planning is the process whereby elected officials step back, examine the current situation of their jurisdiction and then develop a vision of what they would like that jurisdiction to be like in 10, 15, or 20 years, based on forecasted needs and conditions. It is the ability to engage the citizenry and key stakeholders in a visioning process whereby the elected officials are able to determine what those parties would like their jurisdiction to be like in the future. It is the ability to define goals for that county or city and objectives to achieve those goals. It is also the ability to periodically redirect and modify the “plan” as conditions warrant. Most important to achievement of the strategic plan is how on an ongoing basis the jurisdiction's resources can be deployed to achieve the plan's goals.

As an example, let us assume that you're the mayor of city of 80,000 residents characterized by a heavy concentration of industrial activity; inadequate park and library services and facilities, stifling roadway congestion during peak periods, rising housing costs, the absence of “affordable” housing, and a public desirous of improved public safety and other services. Looking to the future, you recognize that the city will continue to grow. It has also been predicted that the city's population growth will be of primarily younger families. Those are the characteristics of the community; the question is what the community's future should look like? Strategic planning is the process whereby you consider those conditions and position the city over time to address those needs.

What is the Difference between Ongoing Policy Making and Strategic Planning?

County and city legislative bodies make public policy! They adopt annual or biennial budgets; they approve land-use variances; they set utility rates, approve conditional use ordinances, and adopt annual property tax rates. These are among the many ongoing and recurring responsibilities of legislative bodies. They address the current needs of the jurisdiction, and those are subject to review and change on a ongoing basis. They are not caste in concrete and few, if any of these policies have long-term implications for the county or the city.

Strategic planning, on the other hand, is an array of actions that can have significant long-term impacts. Adoption of a comprehensive land-use or capital improvement plan; extension of utility lines into formerly undeveloped areas; establishment of an increase in the jurisdiction's minimum wage, or even the decision to partner with the school district to help finance pre-school education, are all elements of a strategic plan to in one way or another shape the jurisdiction's future. As distinct from general short-term policy making, many of the aforementioned actions are the result of a longer, more deliberative process.

Charting Your Jurisdiction's Future: Getting Started

Initiating the process that leads to adoption of a strategic plan requires a well thought out set of procedures. Following is a brief identification of the eight steps in developing a strategic plan for a county or a city.

  1. Secure a consensus amongst the members of the county or city's legislative body that a strategic plan for the jurisdiction should be developed.
  2. Select a facilitator to guide the development of the strategic plan.
  3. With the guidance of the facilitator, assess present conditions, including an evaluation of your county or city's strengths and weaknesses; the nature of the community and what you think the citizenry's expectations for their jurisdiction's future is.
  4. With the assistance of the facilitator agree on a process for the development of the plan (e.g. retreat, subject matter committees, and ongoing committee of the whole).
  5. Determine a means of obtaining citizen and stakeholder input in the development of the plan (e.g. citizen advisory committee, town hall meetings, surveys).
  6. Determine the duration which the strategic plan will cover (e.g. 5, 10, 15, or 20 years).
  7. Determine how frequently the plan will be reviewed and updated.
  8. Initiate the process!

Development of the strategic plan could take 4-8 months depending on the size and complexity of the jurisdiction and the breadth of issues to be addressed. As mentioned above, a subsequent article will describe in detail the above abbreviated process and provide guidance for those counties and cities undertaking the development of a strategic plan.

In closing, it should be noted that in a democracy, government is a composite of the priorities of its citizenry. The citizenry tends to support the efforts of its elected officials when they have a sense that their governments are proactive; identifying current and future needs, and adopting a process that engages the citizenry in identification needs and development of solutions. The adoption of the strategic plan is the culmination of that process.

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.