We surveyed key players in the planning process at the local level to gather information and solicit opinions about the planning process, the strategic plan, and implementation of the plan. The purposes of our study were to 1) determine the process followed by the county in developing their plan, 2) determine the level of satisfaction by local leaders with strategic planning, and 3) look at early implementation efforts. No effort was made to determine if strategic planning resulted in increased economic activity, such as more jobs, higher wages, or more businesses. Because we wanted to look at some early implementation outcomes, we chose to study counties that had a strategic plan in place for two years or longer. Fifty counties were identified as potential participants for the study and these counties were contacted in the late summer of 1994. All 50 counties agreed to participate in the study, which consisted of two surveys: Leaders and Participants. Both surveys consisted of four parts: background information, the planning process, the strategic plan, and implementation of the plan. The results of the two surveys follow.
One of the striking findings of the study is the high professional level of community leaders in both the public and private sectors that were involved in the county-wide strategic planning process. The role of leader was quite extensive with many leaders filling a number of key roles, including chair of the steering committee, chair of a task group, local coordinator, and facilitator. Participants were also very involved in the planning process, often times engaging in several roles, such as members of task groups, members of steering committee, and local coordinator.
The Planning Process
In general, leaders and participants were very positive about the usefulness of strategic planning, with 86 percent of the leaders and 70 percent of the participants agreeing that it was a useful exercise. All the counties made a concerted effort to engage in a comprehensive and thoughtful planning process. Most counties followed the recognized strategic planning steps-- organize, data collection, analysis, vision, key issues, objectives, strategies, action plan, implement, and monitor, evaluate and update. All the counties also recognized the importance of broad-based participation for a successful planning effort and sought to include key leaders from both the public and private sectors in their process. For most counties, strategic planning was not an exercise quickly done, but rather a deliberate process that was done in a thorough manner. The strategic planning process took an average of 12 months to complete, with a range of one to thirty months.
Completion of the planning process took a variety of people and organizations working together within the county and from outside the county. Counties relied on many different sources to finance their planning efforts, with county government, the state planning grant program, and the local economic development organization most frequently mentioned as helping. It also took the collaborative efforts of a number of key organizations and individuals within a county to keep the process on tract. Economic development organizations, whether public/private corporations or private area chambers of commerce, provided the leadership necessary to complete the process. In all the counties we studied, some recognized group gave formal approval or adoption, and in most counties more than one group formally approved it.
The Strategic Plan
The strategic planning process produced a written plan for all the counties studied. It also produced other outcomes, such as enhanced communication and educational awareness about economic development. Almost half the counties also reported that new organizations emerged as a result of the planning effort.
The leaders were very positive about the product of the planning process: the plan itself. They felt most strongly that the issues addressed were of importance to the county. They were also positive about the content of the plan with a majority of the leaders agreeing that their plan had creative, innovative strategies, identified resources, contained realistic timetables, and set clear priorities. Participants, on the other hand, appeared to be not as knowledgeable about the details of the plan with their large number of "not sure" responses or no response. However, statistical analysis showed no significant difference between the leaders and participants in their responses except for realistic timetables.
Implementation of the Plans
Despite doubt about some of the benefits of strategic planning, overall, leaders and participants felt that strategic planning in their county was successful. We found that 94 percent of the counties were currently implementing their plan and that, on average, 61 percent of the strategies were estimated to being implemented. The kinds of strategies being implemented varied from plan to plan, with 84 percent of the counties implementing quality of life strategies, followed by 82 percent implementing business environment strategies.
While most counties are doing a good job of implementing the majority of their strategies, less than half of the counties have an annual report telling what strategies are being implemented. This lack of reporting about implementation is echoed in the level of unsureness and disagreement by leaders and participants that the public is aware of the progress being made in implementation.
Both leaders and participants agreed that the county benefitted from strategic planning, with leaders agreeing more strongly. Some benefits of strategic planning agreed upon by over half of the leaders and participants were: enhanced communication, more awareness of other groups, raised awareness of economic development, and other outcomes besides the written plan.
Not all leaders and participants held positive opinions about strategic planning and its results. About 30 percent of the participants chose not give any opinion, favorable or unfavorable, about statements concerned with results and outcomes of the planning process. More than half of the leaders and participants did not agree that the plan was specific in identifying who was responsible for implementing the various strategies. Over half also felt that the plan was not consulted by government officials for decision-making about future economic growth. The majority of leaders and participants did not agree that the process was a vehicle for innovative change in the county and that new leadership was developed as a result.
A major conclusion of the study is that local leaders and participants believe that strategic planning has been a successful and beneficial effort. It has engaged leadership from both the public and private sector and encouraged broad-based citizen participation. The process for most counties has been a deliberate and thorough one with counties following most of the recognized planning steps. People involved in the process, in general, believe that it was a useful exercise and that their counties are addressing important issues in their plans.
More awareness on the progress being made with implementing the plans and the details of the plans is needed. There is also room for improvement for using the plans in decision-making by government officials. Given the turnover in local leadership, particularly with elected officials, a concerted effort to educate new leaders about the plan and the process used needs to be made. Regular updating of the plan (every 1 - 2 years) will help educate new leadership and provide an opportunity to make the public aware of what has already been accomplished.
Despite some of the weaknesses about the contents the specific plans, strategic planning has provided an opportunity for various organizations and people within a county to work together to set policy and direction for economic growth. We are just starting to see some of the impacts of strategic planning, such as the emergence of new organizations and the implementation of strategies. We expect to see more benefits as more counties finish their plans and start implementing them.
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