They all got together; they all got strategic. They all worked harder than they expected to and lost a city manager along the way.

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON November 8, 2011  Burlington now has a Strategic Plan.    It is a good plan – not the plan some had hoped for – but a good plan and much better than other plans that have been foisted on the public.  The last one Future Focus 7 , was not much more than a collection of pictures with a bit of a wish list.  This plan is not a wish list. It is the result of more than ten half day long meetings as well as a couple of just staff meetings where issues were further refined.


These are the guys who did it. Over a period of seven months and more than ten meetings that lasted more than half a day each. They worked as a team but they didn't set aside their differences. What they managed to do was respect their differences and produce a Strategic Plan that will move the city forward for the next decade at least.

Like everything done at council committee meetings there is a procedure to be followed and that often results in amendments and then maybe even an amendment to an amendment.  Then there are “friendly” amendments and when it gets really serious a council member will call for a recorded vote – which is when everyone has to stand up and be counted.  And last night – they all stood up and voted for the Plan.

Something very different about this plan is the Council’s commitment to review where they are in getting the plan implemented.  That task falls to Allan Magi, Executive Director of Corporate Strategic Initiatives, who now has to get a sense of what can be done and the time frames things can get done in – Magi has his work cut out for him.  He didn’t play much of a leadership role during the ten public meetings, one never got the sense that he was managing any part of the process.  In his defence he was working with one of the best facilitators the city has employed in the past few years and it will be tough to follow that act.

The plan is going to be treated as a dynamic document that grows and changes to meet the city’s changing needs and Magi has to manage that process.

So – what’s in the document?

It has several parts that all link together to form the Strategic Plan city council will now work towards implementing.  Last year during the budget sessions there were a number of spending areas the city didn’t want to make decisions about until they had a sense of what the bigger picture was going to be.  Now they have the big picture in place – so lets go through the different parts and explain what they are and how the city council and senior staff arrived at their conclusions.

There is a vision for the city. Where people, nature and business thrive.

The Strategic Planning Team (SPT) then set out three values in which they said:

1: We are a caring, friendly and inclusive community.

2: We value innovation and trusted partnerships

3: We demonstrate respect by being fair and ethical.

These are what you might call the philosophical base from which the city is going to work to become what it wants to be.  Keep those in mind and perhaps ask yourself if you see yourself and the city as you see it reflected in those statements.

The SPT then created three Strategic Directions.  These were very broad wide ranging statements.  They were not intended to be detailed – the detail follows.  The Strategic Directions were:

Vibrant neighbourhoods


Excellence in government.

See those as very high level statements – again, no detail.  These are the high level objectives  being set out.  Within each of the Strategic Directions there are the following questions about the future we are striving for:

What will it look like ?

How will we measure success?

Those two are followed by an Action list.  The Action List is pure detail; these are the thing the city is going to do and they will align their budget to that Action List.

It is at this point that the document gets into detail which we will cover off and comment on in future articles on how the Strategic Plan the city has now approved came into being.

Councillor Taylor and KPMG facilitator Georgina Black often set the tone for a meeting. They worked well together.

It was not that smooth a process.  Both city hall staff and council members worked very hard and learned much more than they expected to when they got started at that first meeting back in April  at Paletta Mansion.  That first session was a primer on the different ways a Council can interact with the community it was elected to serve.

When city council decided to look for outside help in putting together a Strategic Plan they settled on KPMG, an international consulting firm that has a significant municipal client base; they know municipalities.  Burlington was very, very fortunate to have Georgina Black put in as the lead facilitator on this assignment.  The original expectation was that there might be five, perhaps six sessions – they ended up needing ten sessions and that of course took the project over budget.  Whatever the cost – it is money well spent.  Everyone got a graduate course in how to put together a Strategic Plan and they had one of the best teachers in that business leading them.  Black was tough.  She would lead and when she realized her students weren’t keeping up she would back track and get them all up to speed.  Some were in a bit over their heads but she was a good shepherd and didn’t lose any of her flock.  At one point she said to a Councillor who had made a statement. “No Councillor, you’re wrong. Let me explain …”   Everyone in the room gulped a little but the ground rules were in place; the facilitator was not going to run a “feel good” class.

This Council tends to want to do the right thing – but when it gets down to the short strokes – they sometimes  fail themselves.  In one of the earliest sessions Black introduced them to a BHAG.  That acronym stands for “big hairy audacious goal”.   The goal was to be something that was bigger than anyone would have thought possible – sort of like that Sunday school lesson: Dare to be  Daniel.

But the Strategic Planning Team never managed to get their head around that kind of an idea.  They tended to fall back on the lake and the escarpment as the defining aspects of what Burlington is.  “Those are just geography” Black would point out.  Kitchener-Waterloo is technology, Guelph is advanced agricultural research, Hamilton is a steel city transitioning to something that is not really clear yet but that they are transitioning is very clear.

What the Strategic Planning Team couldn’t come up with was – what is Burlington?  Black realized that the team wasn’t ready to tackle a question quite that big.  Due partly to the wrong kind of leadership; the city manager at the time wasn’t working from a vision that was shared by Council.  He was more of a strong administrator who knew the numbers and the procedures.   The Mayor was still new to the job (realize that this was late April and he’d not been in office 120 days yet) and while Goldring knew a Strategic Plan was vital for the city he hadn’t grown enough into the job to be able to formulate that big hairy audacious goal.  Don’t hold that against him: that the city took on the task of setting out to create a Strategic Plan was Goldring’s doing.

Councillor Dennison used his MBA to tangle with facilitator Black just the once. He soon realized this was her event and he fell into line quickly. Dennison however brought a perspective that his years of experience on Council made invaluable.

A recent newspaper headline about Hamilton said: “Because the city of Hamilton is heading nowhere, it’s likely to get there.” That statement cannot be said of Burlington.  We know we are heading somewhere and in the next two and a half years we will be able to look back and see where we were and where we are – and we will surprise they heck out of ourselves when we see the trail behind us.

Council is very proud of the significant amount of public involvement in the plan and use the phrase “more than 5000 touch points” with people in the city..  That is a somewhat inflated number unless senior staff are counting people who walked by outside the room a meeting was taking place in.

The ten sessions were held at several locations: Paletta Mansion, Burlington Art Centre, LaSalle Pavillion, the Conservation Authority offices in the rural part of the city and included television call in shows and structured interviews.  Different interest groups met at Tansley Woods and, disappointingly brought the same old, same old special interests to the table.  Mayor Goldring led that session and moved things along quite briskly.  It was evident then that this Council was not going to buy into same old, same old.  They wanted a bigger vision and while it was early in the process one could sense that they were all going to learn much more than they expected about what it meant to think strategically.

Council members grew individually and they grew as a unit.  Georgina Black was made a partner of KPMG, a very well deserved reward.  She will go on to do some very significant work in the municipal sector.  Burlington can take some satisfaction that she was with us before she was made a partner.  she was a good one.

Our Burlington sat in on almost every Strategic Planning session – we were the only media to do so and in the days ahead we will take you through the sessions the Strategic Planning Team went through; some of them a little on the torturous side; others quite  disappointing and some filled with promise.

Ward 4 Councillor Jack Dennison put it very well Monday evening when he said: “This is the best Strategic Plan the city has put out – and I’ve gone through seven of these things.”  What Jack didn’t say was that he was part of six plans that were not worth the paper they were printed on.  And he had his problems with the creation of the plan we now have – but he also made an absolutely vital contribution which we will tell you about during this series of news features.

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