The development of the City of Grand Rapids’ strategic plan began in October 2018 with the support of an external consultant. After the first strategic planning work session with the City Commission, the City Manager determined the process should be led and facilitated internally with the consultant serving an advisory role. In December, the City Manager asked Alison Sutter to serve as the strategic plan project manager in addition to her duties as the City’s sustainability manager. Sutter worked with the City Manager and the City’s executive team to create a project team. The team then developed a process for the strategic plan’s creation and content. The City used strategic plans from Austin, Texas, Grand Valley State University, and Raleigh, N.C., as references when creating its plan.
The first step in the plan’s creation was to identify a focus and feasible scope. For instance, when it comes to sustainability, there are city operations directly controlled by the City and there are community-wide impacts from sources not managed by the City. Staff decided to focus primarily on city operations. They also included strategies in the plan to support or collaborate with community members working on issues the City does not have direct control over but are still important to stakeholders. For example, the City is collaborating with partners on a river restoration project to reconnect the community to the river and continue to improve its water quality.
Next, the City Manager met with staff across all departments and the City Commission to select the City’s six core values. The values identified were accountability, collaboration, customer service, equity, innovation, and sustainability. The project team set an intention to embed these values in the six sections of the plan: governmental excellence, economic prosperity and affordability, engaged and connected community, health and environment, mobility and safe community.
To structure the work, three teams were created: executive, project, and outcome. The executive team included City Manager Washington, six City administrators and the strategic plan project manager. This team received and edited draft reports and made high-level strategic recommendations to the City Manager. The 10-person project team was responsible for the bulk of the work. This group coordinated and led the six outcome teams, reviewed and discussed overlapping concepts, worked to embed the values throughout the entire plan and made recommendations to the executive team. One outcome team was established for each of the plan’s six sections. The outcome teams were cross-departmental and were responsible for drafting the strategies and metrics.
Each outcome team also included one “equity champion.” This person made sure potential disparate impacts were discussed and helped teams identify strategies that would result in more equitable outcomes. A key focus was how strategies could remove and prevent barriers created by systemic and institutional discrimination.
The City Manager reviewed and approved the content of the final draft strategic plan, which then was presented to the City Commission. The Commission adopted the strategic plan in April 2019.
It is important to note the project manager relied heavily on two colleagues, both of whom also served as project leads. One was trained in LEAN process improvement practices and helped establish the framework and timing at the start of the plan creation process. The other one designed the plan. Everyone has different skillsets and expertise. It is important to evaluate what people can do and choose who does what.
The City’s adoption of sustainability and accountability as two of its six core values aligns with its previous sustainability plan. The City’s definition for sustainability is “the ability to be maintained and making decisions with an understanding of how those decisions will impact the environment, people and communities, and finances both today and in the future.” Staff need to consider how their proposed budget items and operational decisions may harm environmental quality, communities, and economic prosperity. Since accountability also is a value, staff need to measure and report on their progress in a transparent manner that allows the City Manager, commissioners, and the public to hold the City responsible for its commitments.
As the City enters the budgeting process for the upcoming fiscal year, all new budgeting requests need to show how they align with the strategic plan.
The fee for the consultant, who was most heavily used at the beginning of the process, was around $18,000. In addition, nearly 50 staff worked varying hours across the five-month plan development period, with the project manager working almost full time for four months. The project manager also worked closely with the budget team and the City Manager to align the FY2020 budget to the plan’s strategic priorities.
The project took five months and was completed shortly before the FY2020 budget was presented and ultimately approved. During the first month, the consultant worked with the executive team to lay a foundation for a process and begin engaging the City Commission. City staff spent the remaining four months developing the plan.