First steps taken towards the creation of a strategic plan for Burlington that will have significant public input.

By Pepper Parr

Burlington, ON May 12, 2011 – There was more than a million dollars worth of talent in the room. They were there to learn how to crate a Strategic Plan for the City of Burlington. Council members and the key people from senior city administration sitting side by side, unlike the way they are positioned in Council Chambers, on opposite sides of the horseshow table. And they weren’t being web cast.

The city was embarking on its eighth Strategic Plan and wanted to do much better than the 2006-2010 Council had done. That Strategic Plan was basically abandoned about halfway through the term and consisted of a collection of Motherhood statements and a lot of pictures.

This Council wanted a Strategic Plan that would be used to move forward with budgets that kept taxes at a level the rate payers were comfortable with and have a plan that reflected the new emphasis on citizen engagement.

The process started with a Work Book that was made available to citizens and then the pretty standard meetings with stakeholders, which consisted of various groups giving the administration and the Council members their take on where the city should be going. They got what they expected from the Burlington Downtown Business Association and the Museum Board – special interests for the most part.

What this Council was looking for was some imagination – blue sky thinking and so far there hasn’t been much that wasn’t expected, but this is a new experience for Burlington which is why the consultants were brought in. KPMG, an international consulting firm has been doing this kind of thing for years and has very deep experience with the public sector.

Georgina Black leads Council and city staff through a training session on skills needed to develop an effective strategic plan

Georgina Black leads Council and city staff through a training session on skills needed to develop an effective strategic plan

Georgina Black from KPMG will be leading the five sessions they will have with Staff and Council. They started by interviewing each of the Council members and many senior staff and now have a sense of what each knows about Strategic Planning and what their early thoughts are.

There were a number of objectives the group would work towards. The focus was both on teaching the elected and the hired hands what they had to do to create a strategic plan and also, and equally as important, what they had to do to teach the public what was expected of them. Ms Black started by explaining that she wanted to arrive at a “common understanding of the framework they were going to work within as they moved through the various steps. She wanted to ensure everyone had an increased understanding of “the environment you are working in”. All to often Burlington Council and senior staff have been at odds with each other – not always pulling together as a team. There have been a number of occasions when a Council member would flare up in anger at the response being given by a staff member. This Council was some ticked when they learned that through a “gapping” approach to staffing the city had a surplus on the salary side of more than $3 million and investment revenue that came in at more than $2 million – and they wanted to know why they were learning about this near the end of the year.

Ms Black wanted Council and Staff to work out an agreement “on how you can do your best work.” By having the group break into sub working groups that had a mix of senior staff and Council members around the same table working through an assignment, the two groups began to understand a little more just how each worked and thought. “doing this kind of work”, explained Ms Black would “produce superior returns over the long term”.

The first session was a kind of level setting – figuring out just where they were and then opening the box to see what was inside and what they could, as a team, develop as a process and the outline of a plan they would then flesh out with the citizens.

Ms Black put some fundamentals in front of the group.

They were to adhere to the agenda that was in place and agreed upon
They would engage in “discussion”
They would focus on the objective
They would work towards consensus
They would be “be present” (no snoozing)

As they worked through the session she passed on some truths that may not have been evident to both Staff and Council members. “If it is important as an objective, then put some money into it and with any plan – just follow the money, that will tell you where you are going”.

The time line for the strategic plan was 20 to 25 years with a tight focus on the next four years and an assignment of money to each of the core objectives – which gives you the link between the Strategic Plan and the city budget. If there is no money in the budget for a strategic plan objective then you had to question why it was in the plan to begin with. The result is you come away with a plan that is focused, robust and funded.

The first breakout was to look at what the guiding principles for the city were. Roy Male, Executive Director Human Resources, made a very good point when he said: “We have to be able to see ourselves in the principles that we set out.” For Male having a compelling Strategic Plan on his desk is an excellent recruiting tool as well. One member suggested that honoring the past was important – and yes someone then mentioned the Freeman Station.

The process Ms Black took them through was focused and rigid with the objective of coming up with a plan that was compelling and something citizens would identify with and want to say: “That’s my Burlington.”

Consultants understand how the executive mind works and Ms Black made solid use of regular breaks. She wanted people to get up and move around and to chat with others rather than have them sitting at a table for hours at a time. This is something both Council and Staff have to learn.

Ms Black got people into small breakout groupings with a task they had to work on together. She gave them homework and asked questions about the material they were supposed to have read. The purpose of the breakouts was to get the groups to agree on what the process for creating a strategic plan was going to be and then drill down and determine what the objectives were to be. Appreciate that this group was not going to create the strategic plan but they had to ensure that there was a process they all agreed upon so that when they went to the community there would be a consistency.

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