Feb 06 Election to Execution: Why Strategy Execution Matters in Local Government

The path to becoming an “engaged local government leader” runs the gamut from those who’ve pursued formal training and landed a position in government, to elected officials for whom government is perhaps a second career. In between the two, are countless stories of how each of us found ourselves, for better or worse, so captivated by the business of local government.

I’m no scholar and, by virtue of temperament, I’m not electable. So, instead, I served as Chief of Staff for Lancaster, Pennsylvania Mayor Rick Gray. Mayor Gray led Lancaster’s first strategic planning process, and the relatively successful execution of three strategic plans over twelve years is why Rick Gray is Lancaster’s longest-serving Mayor to date, and why the City of Lancaster has become a vibrant and growing small city lauded on the “top ten lists” of several national publications and travel blogs.

As Chief of Staff, I learned a bottom line lesson about strategic planning: Many people assume that the hardest thing about ‘Strategy’ is the planning. Not so much. Executing a strategic plan is particularly hard in local government where public expectations are high, scrutiny is intense, and skepticism has been normalized. In that context, I offer these five keys to success.

First, no one person can ever execute a strategy. Successful execution relies on a collective effort. If you’ve been tasked with executing a Strategic Plan, the first thing you need to come to terms with is that your primary function is to guide, coach and enable others – not to work on the strategy yourself.

Second, don’t even bother doing a strategic plan unless you’re prepared to execute that plan in a way that’s transparent, engaging, and collaborative. Each of Lancaster’s Strategic Plans embodied the Mayor’s vision, included ideas and input from the City’s workforce, and reflected stated priorities and feedback from the community. Employees need to feel connected to the Strategic Plan, and residents need to know that government leaders are making progress – or not.

Third, communication is key. Do it early and often. We always did a public “launch” to help create a buzz around the strategic plan. This made executing the plan a part of the workforce culture and a rallying point for civic engagement. Of course, the buzz is short-lived if you fail to provide on-going updates for the workforce and for the community. Keeping momentum up helped us keep everyone focused and interested when business as usual crept in and threatened to suck all the energy and attention out of the room.

Fourth, TRACKING AND REPORTING is the most difficult part of executing a strategic plan.

Obviously, you need to ensure that everyone in your organization is regularly updating the progress of their own goals. This doesn’t have to be arduous or time-consuming. A simple quantitative measure of progress against the goal, and a short line or two of commentary about overall progress will do. Sounds simple and easy. The hard part is getting key players to provide those timely and useful updates.

Effective tracking lays the groundwork for effective reporting. With effective tracking, monthly reports to City Council, a State of the City address, or an Annual Report become a proudly produced showcase instead of a frantic and time-consuming trip down a memory lane littered with spreadsheets.

Finally, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of on-going collaboration to ensure consistent tracking and successful execution of your strategic plan. In practical terms, it means that we expose the entire strategy of the organization to all employees, as well as give them tools to search for and read about what their colleagues are all working on. At the same time, making information about progress easily accessible and transparent keeps the community engaged and enthused.

That said, local government is the last, best, arena for demonstrating the value and optimism of public service, and for showing just how skilled government can be at delivering on the possibilities born out of good ideas, clear vision, and meaningful collaboration.

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Patricia A. Brogan (Pat) is a veteran communications, legislative affairs, and public policy consultant to non-profit organizations, educational institutions, and local and state government with three decades of experience in campaigns and elections. A former staffer with the Pennsylvania General Assembly, Pat served as Chief of Staff for Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray from 2006 through 2017. She currently provides consulting services to the City of Lancaster Mayor’s Office.

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