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Strategic Planning

Developing and delivering a council’s strategic plan

It is no coincidence that most high-performing organisations have a strategic plan with SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound) objectives. As the old saying goes, if you don’t know where you are going, how will you know when you’ve got there?

It is therefore surprising when councils do not have any form of strategic plan. Many are put off by the thought of producing a substantial document with a lot of evidence and detailed objectives; indeed, for the majority of councils this is simply unachievable due to limited staff resources. However, one of the most effective strategic plans I have seen was developed by a small parish council with a part-time (10 hours per week) parish clerk. The plan was one side of A4 with a mission statement at the top and a list of targets in one column and the reasons why they were being delivered in another, along with sources of finance and staff/volunteer resources, deadlines and current status. Over a period of 36 months this small parish council completed all its objectives and set about devising a new plan.

For larger councils at least, the ideal (but not the only) time to develop a strategic plan is within the first six months of the formation of a new administration. The new council will at its formation inevitably follow a model of group development that was defined by psychologist Bruce Tuckman in 1965 as “Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing”, and to which in 1977 he added “Adjourning”, in time for the next administration to be elected. As a new council is likely to follow this process, it is an ideal time to embark on the development of a strategic plan: the new council then takes control of the process and attempts to secure benefit rather than confusion and conflict for the next four years.

Forming is the election of the new administration and then bringing individuals together as a group, often in early training sessions and via the councillor’s information pack. A visioning exercise completes the Forming stage, and this then leads into the Storming stage, where there may well be some conflict over priorities. This is to be expected, but if the process and debate are managed to create a fully evidenced and appraised strategic plan, the effort will be worth it. The process of developing the plan brings together everyone in the organisation to develop clear objectives. This process in itself does not support focusing everyone in the same direction, but it enables the team to focus on where they are, where they want to be and how they will get there.

The Norming stage is where everything settles down and team members – both officers and councillors – buy into the common goal of the strategic plan and work together to deliver it. However, there may be some who do not, and in the case of employees they may need to be re-motivated or may even need to look to consider leaving the organisation. If councillors do not buy into the process they cannot be allowed to derail it, and they should always be encouraged to get on board.

The Performing stage sees the necessary delegation to officers to empower and motivate and to allow the team to deliver on the objectives in accordance with the strategic plan. During this time, progress will be continuously monitored. The Adjourning stage is the inevitable breaking up of the team as the council enters into the next round of elections and the next administration is elected.

So, what should your strategic plan include? There are several recommended variations, but the five key elements to include are:

  • mission statement
  • core values
  • SWOT analysis
  • all your SMART objectives
  • SMART objectives for the coming year.

A mission statement describes what you do currently, for whom, and how. It should be memorable and not too long – the team should be able to use and retain it. Some mission statements combine the mission with the vision, and are both informative or descriptive as well as inspirational.

Core values are the council’s beliefs that will enable it to deliver on its vision and mission. These beliefs can cover areas such as community leadership, collaboration with the local community, representing the needs of the community, delivering the best possible services, and accountability.

A SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) is a commonly used tool in the sector. Ideally, the main stakeholders should develop this as part of a visioning exercise for the council during the Forming stage. Carrying out this exercise will enable the council to highlight the key areas to address. Some of these may be fairly mundane, such as achieving a clean bill of health at audit or increasing reserves by a certain amount. Others in the opportunities column may well be pioneering or high-value, such as exciting developments such as providing affordable housing or building a new theatre, for example. The development of the SWOT analysis should consider key pieces of evidence such as consultation surveys with stakeholders, tree surveys, building assessments, the Neighbourhood Plan (if one exists) and the aspirations of partners. This ensures that objectives are evidence-based and realistic and are not just vanity projects.

SMART objectives are essential, but in our practice we often see unrealistic objectives being set. This is usually because the desired objective is not within the gift of the council – for example, setting a target of preventing further new housing in the parish or opening the local police station 24 hours a day. These are issues on which third parties will ultimately make the decision, and to have them as targets gives the impression to the public that the council has the power to implement them when in fact it does not. Thus, the council sets itself up for a fall when these objectives are not achieved. This in turn can result in unnecessary stress for councillors and officers alike, and more significantly adverse reputational impact for the council.

It is vitally important, if the council is to deliver on its objectives, that it remains focused on them and specifically on those that should be delivered over the coming 12 months. Having too many balls in the air at once often leads to dropping most, if not all, of them. Equally the council needs to ensure that new non-evaluated objectives, which can often be vanity projects, are not allowed to come in from outside of strategic development and go to the front of the queue. During the pandemic, of course, we have seen many examples of objectives that are worthy of leapfrogging others, such as setting up food banks or coordinating food deliveries to the homes of vulnerable people. However, such examples should be rare and, generally speaking, should be pursued only where they are of considerable merit and are also time-limited, to be undertaken immediately or in any event before the creation of the next strategic plan.

Some smaller councils may wish to reduce the plan to SMART objectives alone, and this is better than no plan. The best way to draw up a simple plan of this sort is to ask four simple questions:

  • Where have we come from? (What have we done well in the past and what have we done not so well – i.e. lessons learned).
  • Where are we now?
  • Where do we want to get to?
  • How will we get there?

Delivery of your strategic plan

Once a strategic plan has been adopted by the council, it is vitally important that its objectives are delivered if the council is to remain credible and residents are to see value for money. The key to delivering the strategic plan effectively is to link its objectives with the council’s performance management systems.

This is achieved by setting all employees objectives that deliver on the strategic plan. It is good for team morale and motivation to ensure that every employee has at least one linked objective: this should be considered when devising the plan, as it makes everyone feel valued and improves motivation and morale generally within the organisation.

These objectives, set at annual appraisals for employees, should then be monitored as part of regular performance management meetings with line managers. This is often a particular weakness when managing the clerk, as technically the only line manager is the full council. A system should be put in place and perhaps included within the member and officer protocol for the clerk to work in partnership with lead councillors to monitor performance against the targets set in the strategic plan. A proven way to do this is to arrange monthly, time-limited informal meetings between the clerk and lead councillors, in a spirit of mutual support and collaboration. To support the meetings, a spreadsheet detailing all the targets should be used as the means of updating the council on progress and by default performance managing the clerk.

One area where conflict often arises stems from poorly managed appraisals of the clerk. As a former SLCC advisor to clerks, I was amazed at how often relationships broke down between councillors and the clerk as a result of the annual appraisal. This was often due to a lack of training and a poor grasp of how the appraisal process should work, and how to conduct it as a positive experience. Ideally, the appraisal should follow an approved format, such as that recommended by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), all parties should receive some training and ideally a qualified HR support should be present.

What next after adopting your strategy?

The council will need the resources to deliver the strategy, so now is an ideal time to commission an organisational review to ensure that the council has the most effective and most efficient staff resources to enable it to deliver its objectives over the remainder of the administration. There are a number of organisations that can undertake this review on behalf of a council, including Council HR and Governance Support. We can also support you in developing your strategic plan and on any other governance matters as well as recruitment, locum cover and an annual HR support service, all delivered by our team of expert associates.


Written by James Corrigan, Director of Council HR and Governance Support.
As appeared in Clerks & Councils Direct, November 2021
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