Four key elements to building community trust and transparency in strategic plans
I have enormous respect for the work of local government officials. Under immense pressure, and with significant constraints, they set out each day to uncover new ways of improving the lives of the people in their communities. Over the last two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has tested their mettle.
As the crisis took hold in 2020, many city and county governments had to quickly shift priorities from longer term projects to protecting their communities from the pandemic. At the same time, large, complex problems such as climate change, homelessness and community safety were exacerbated by the immense societal changes that the pandemic ushered in. All of this was happening while budgets and staffing levels were being slashed.
As we progress through the second year of the pandemic, most municipal and county government budgets have stabilized thanks to the infusion of federal grant funding from programs such as the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). However, it’s clear that we must now look beyond short-term, acute crisis planning and toward longer-term strategic planning to address large-scale, systemic problems in our communities and society at large.
Increasingly, residents are demanding more transparency and accountability to ensure funds, especially those from programs such as ARPA, are being used appropriately. Thus, strategic plans, and their execution, must now be both agile and transparent to build community trust.
Here’s how you can get it done.
- Engage the community in developing multi-year strategic plans
There’s a reason we call our local leaders public servants: they are there to serve the public’s needs and to act as stewards of democracy. Maybe in the past, officials could get away with not directly including the community in strategic planning, but certainly not today. Residents have a huge amount of information at their fingertips, and any story about your activities, good or bad, can quickly spread online and on social media. Put simply, if you are leaving the community out of the conversation, you’re betraying your mission from the start.
- Engage your team and put these plans into action
Just like in our personal lives, in local government, trust starts with doing what you say you will do. If you’re building a plan and taking the time to engage residents, it’s imperative that you are seen to execute on it. You must put those plans into action. Doing so builds credibility, shows integrity and responsiveness, and demonstrates competence. Our research tells us that these elements are critical to building long-term community trust and not executing on the plan does the opposite. This is so important that if you’re not serious about operationalizing your plan, please don’t even bother developing it.
- Inform decisions with data
Data is the language of performance. It helps add specificity to a plan. It’s a non-partisan, objective way to show whatis happening on a day-to-day basis within your plan. You think your novel police reform plan is going well? Prove it with data. You want to demonstrate how your infrastructure plan is delivering on its promise of increasing residents’quality of life? Track and communicate progress.Any government planning should include a framework for identifying, collecting, analyzing, and sharing the information needed to measure what matters and guide decision-making at different levels of the organization.
- Regularly communicate the plan’s progress and performance
Residents want to know that you’re doing what you said you were going to do. But they won’t know unless you tell them. Regular, clear communication is critical to keeping them informed and building trust. A lack of transparency, even if unintended, breeds mistrust and misinformation. For example, if the only publicly available performance data remains buried in individual reports on each department’s webpage, you’re losing out on one of the best ways to tell your story (and if you don’t tell your story, someone else will tell it for you).Residents don’t always know specifically what city, town and county governments do, let alone how they’re tackling a specific issue. Regularly communicating your progress, and even your setbacks or disruptions, is critical to building trust.
Rethink strategic planning to focus on transparency and trust
Now more than ever, residents are demanding greater transparency into how governments are operating and delivering on the promises they make. The pandemic has forced local governments, tasked with a set of problems not seen before, to reinterpret their understanding of strategic planning and, perhaps more importantly, strategic execution.
This doesn’t just apply to organization-wide strategic plans. Increasingly, long-term roadmaps to address complex issues, such as diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI); community safety and environmental stewardship, live as standalone plans. As such, they require their own performance management frameworks and communications channels to build trust and transparency with the community around essential initiatives.
The good news for local government leaders and the communities they serve is that federal grant money is empowering them to look beyond short-term, acute crisis planning and toward longer-term strategic planning. Forward-looking local governments that prioritize transparency and trust-building can seize this unique moment in time.
Mike Bell is founder and CEO of Envisio, the leading strategy and performance management software solution for local government. Bell founded Envisio with a vision to build trusted, transparent and high-performing public institutions. Learn more at envisio.com.