How Mecklenburg County Got On the Road to Strategic Business Planning
Today’s government organizations should have a spirit of accountability and transparency with residents, visitors, stakeholders, and elected officials when it comes to strategic planning. The days are long gone when government spent resources without first determining community needs and subsequently identifying the organizational goals and objectives aligned to those needs.
For more than a decade, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, has embraced strategic planning and performance management practices. With an average population growth rate of 3 percent annually since the late 1990s, county leaders have continuously faced the challenge of how best to respond to the growth, as well as address short-term and long-term needs of the community.
Early Planning Efforts
Strategic planning began in 2001 when the Board of County Commissioners adopted the county’s managing for results (M4R) philosophy (see Figure 1), together with a community and corporate scorecard performance management framework (see Figure 2), which was based on the balanced scorecard model.
Between 2001 and 2011, the county successfully implemented the community and corporate scorecard, which included desired results and goals along with strategies and measures aligned to four focus areas.
Many of the scorecard measures cascaded down to all county departments to include but not be limited to increased service value that measured customer satisfaction with programs and services. Employee motivation and satisfaction were also measured.
Both the county manager and department directors were held accountable annually for meeting many of the scorecard’s desired results.
At the height of the Great Recession, however, the county realized that while the M4R results philosophy was still relevant, there was an even greater need to revamp strategic planning practices and reassess the county’s focus.
In response to the recession-inspired lull, Mecklenburg County delayed development in 2010 of a three-year strategic business plan, but did establish target areas to use as the basis for making numerous budget decisions in the post-recession period.
In reality, the county’s response to an increased demand for services, a decline in property tax and sales tax revenue, and a reduction in force required a different way of thinking about the provision of government services to meet residents’ needs.
In January 2014, Mecklenburg County appointed Dena Diorio, formerly the county’s chief financial officer, as county manager, which set the stage for a new chapter in the county’s planning evolution.
A New Strategic Framework
Within the first month of her new position, Manager Diorio realized she wanted to make some changes while building on the successes of the previous administration. She reinforced the notion that government should be transparent and accountable.
One of her first initiatives was to discuss with staff a new strategic framework. Although the county already had a history of strategic planning efforts, the county took an unprecedented approach by focusing on developing and implementing three-year (FY2017–2019) strategic business plans for all county departments and two of its non-county government business partners: Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and Mecklenburg EMS Agency, a.k.a., MEDIC.
These strategic business plans reflect the priorities of departments and focus on areas of improvement. They include goals and objectives, strategies and actions for each objective, and associated costs to execute the actions on an annual basis.
The costs require organizations to be more intentionally focused, with greater levels of accountability for spending on programs and services.
To ensure that department directors and business partner executives were onboard with the model once the strategic planning framework was established, a series of communications were provided to department heads, strategic business planning teams, including fiscal administrators, management analysts, and senior staff within departments, and county commissioners.
In late 2014, the county manager’s strategic planning and evaluation team met with directors and shared this vision for a three- to four-year body of work: preplanning phase (FY2015) to planning (FY2016) to post-planning and implementation (FY2017).
In April 2015, team members shared the strategic business planning framework with commissioners, because gaining their buy-in was important given that budget-funding decisions for fiscal years 2017 through 2019 would tie to the business plans. The framework was well received.
In June 2015, the planning teams received an overview of the scope of work and the timeline of work to be performed. This kickoff was followed by a two-day, train-the-facilitator session that provided the basics of strategic planning, as well as tips on facilitating groups of individuals through the strategic planning process.
Goals and Key Themes
During summer 2015, the planning teams worked to develop three to five goals for their departments. So that all county departments and business partner executives were informed of the goals, Manager Diorio held a one-day strategic planning retreat with cabinet members and included department directors and executives for the business partner organizations.
At that point, the directors shared goals and gave rationales for their significance, provided key demographic and economic data as context, and highlighted barriers to achieving goals. Barriers included, among others, resource availability, potential instability in the market due to changes in North Carolina and federal legislation, and unanticipated changes in customer demands.
Within the community support services department business plan, for example, is a goal to strengthen intervention to meet the needs of veterans. This goal includes decreasing domestic violence, community violence, and substance use by 2019 and maintaining and improving service delivery for veterans and their families.
The rationale for this objective is that the community’s veteran population—57,194 in 2014—is growing. Federal projections from the Department of Veterans Affairs forecast that Mecklenburg County will add 3,000 veterans through 2016, and members of this group will need more comprehensive services and require more assistance as they age and face healthcare and disability changes. Survivor benefits for veterans’ spouses as well as burial benefits will play a major role in the workloads of county staff.
The department has identified two barriers to meeting the objective, one being a limited number of veteran services officers who can provide assistance to individuals filing claims. According to the department, the average client load per service officer is expected to be some $1,630.
Over the next three years of the department’s business plan, it anticipates hiring three additional staff positions to redistribute the workload. A second barrier is the changes in VA claim-processing software that could extend the time needed to process benefits before a desired outcome is achieved.
Based on the department’s estimates to achieve the goal during fiscal years 2017 to 2019, the total spend, including new and ongoing funding each year, is approximately $2-$3.2 million each year. By sharing the barriers, county leaders were made aware of potential issues with trying to meet established goals.
The retreat identified two theme categories that reflected subthemes from 65 department-business partner identified goals and grouped here by similar focus:
- Key Theme 1: Talent Management (acquisition, development, retention).
- Key Theme 2: Internal Communication and Public Awareness.
- Key Theme 3: Leverage Financial Resources.
- Key Theme 4: Leverage Technology to Optimize Service Delivery.
- Key Theme 5: Optimize Investments in Criminal Justice.
- Key Theme 6: Strengthen Families.
- Key Theme 7: Economic Development.
- Key Theme 8: Greater Economic Independence for Residents.
- Key Theme 9: Aging with Dignity.
- Key Theme 10: Community Health and Wellness.
- Key Theme 11: Environmental Stewardship.
Development, Approval, and Sharing
After the retreat, the departments and the business partners were given a green light to continue to build out their strategic business plans.
Over the course of four months, departments and business partners developed plans that included environmental scan findings (internal and external data collection and analysis); new or modified existing vision and mission statements; strategic measurable goals and objectives; strategies; action items for each fiscal year; costs for the action items needed to achieve the goals and objectives for each fiscal year; and key performance measures.
Costs included human capital expenses, information technology expenses, communications expenses, and assets and facilities expenses for each of the three years.
Collectively, more than 100 individuals across 21 departments and two business partners were involved in the development of strategic business plans.
In December 2015, the department and business partner strategic plans were reviewed and approved by the county manager and executive team members. In January 2016, during the county commissioners’ annual retreat, key theme presentations on goals and objectives, plus executive summaries for each of the strategic business plans, were shared.
The summaries contained an overview of the department and business partner mission and vision statements; environmental context (i.e., economic and social trends, demographic and social changes, and more); a director’s message; and a summary of the goals, objectives, and costs to achieve the goals and objectives.
Budget Informed by Goals
The board’s annual retreat serves as the kickoff for budget development. Each department receives an overview from the county’s budget director on revenue estimates and forecast, expectations for development of department budget requests, and a timeline for key meeting dates to discuss the budget.
During budget development, in addition to adjustments to department start points like removal of one-time funding for fleet and technology purchases, departments were instructed to submit two types of budget requests to the Office of Management and Budget.
These included non-strategic business plan requests that maintain contractual increases and operational costs tied to capital projects as well as requests that align specifically to the three-year business plans.
Requests that aligned to the strategic business plans were identified in the budget submission forms with a unique code that included the goal, objective, associated strategy, request (i.e., human capital, technology, communications, and facilities), and the costs to execute the strategy.
By having costs aligned to business plans, the county was able to easily identify its specific investment in each department and for each goal to be achieved over the three-year period.
The greater value with aligning costs is that the budget mirrors the strategic priorities across the organization and creates a long-term approach to budgeting. This not only enhances the annual budget process beyond the typical incremental approach most organizations have, but it also recognizes the resource needs throughout a three-year period.
A New and Fresh Beginning…Again
For the county, the strategic business plans were a critical component to ensuring the county aligns its resources with the needs of the community. While no strategic business plans are perfect, county leaders have more clarity as to what are the true needs of the departments and business partners.
Ultimately, many of the goals identified at the department and business partner level will be incorporated into the county’s FY2017–2019 strategic business plan. Plan implementation and quarterly reporting will begin on July 1, 2016.