Dreams That Make A Difference

Community-based strategic planning is a specific approach to strategic planning that engages the community in a tangible way.

ARTICLE | Feb 18, 2014

The value of community-based strategic planning

Is there any value in engaging communities in strategic planning? After all, locally elected officials function within a representative democracy, accepting responsibility for planning for the future of local governments. While the need is not always tangible, the value in community-based strategic planning is derived from the engagement, buy-in, and owning a stake of the future of the communities within which local governments operate.

In the late 1990s, I recall Alvin Toffler speaking at a national conference where he shared a metaphor that left a lasting impression. Toffler talked about how local governments were becoming vending machines. A vending machine is not something anyone “buys into”—you literally put your money in, press the button, and get what you want.

And what happens when we don’t get what we want? We shake or kick the machine, leave nasty Post-it notes, and perhaps call the posted phone number and complain to a customer service representative. While I am a believer in local governments providing excellent customer service, Toffler’s metaphor is clearly not the image we want for local governments.

Engaging residents (and businesses and institutions) in community-based strategic planning replaces the vending machine and invokes a setting where people and institutions come together, dream about, and then go about creating the future of their community. Toffler offered the image of a barn raising being a more apropos metaphor than a vending machine.

It sounds lovely. Spending time with a group of residents to get their input and buy-in to the future of a community. The question is: Does it make a difference?

Back to the Future

Over the past 20 years, I have had the opportunity to participate in community-based strategic planning processes as both a city official/manager and as an adviser. At this juncture, it is reasonable to ask the question: What difference did those processes have in the lives of community residents?

Fort Collins, Colorado: Challenge Fort Collins. The first exposure I had to community-based strategic planning beyond public processes for capital improvement planning (CIP) was a process known as Challenge Fort Collins in the early 1990s. Fort Collins had long been known for active resident participation. Two successful CIP processes had brought impressive city facilities to life in this college town—one known as Designing Tomorrow Today; the other, Choices 95.

One could have almost questioned the need for Challenge Fort Collins but in reality it was bigger than the city government, it was about the entire community. Leadership was provided by dedicated residents, the Poudre Valley School District, Colorado State University, Poudre Valley Hospital, the business community, the arts community, and the city.

Everyone had an equal voice, and when residents wanted to open up the public schools for community use “after hours,” it took several years of dedicated individuals working tirelessly to engage the school district and create an award-winning program that was later recognized by President Clinton as a program of excellence.

Rockville, Maryland: Imagine Rockville. In the late 1990s, Rockville, Maryland, engaged in a community-based process that was known as Imagine Rockville: Creating the Future, followed by its successor Imagine Rockville: Checking in with the Future. Those processes had a profound impact on the community and city government.

Out of the process, the city decided to intentionally engage neighborhood associations in order to establish a Neighborhood Resources Program that was desired by the community and is still in place today. It was determined that downtown Rockville, which was emerging from a failed shopping mall that imploded in late 1995, needed grid streets to be reestablished, and the community wanted a new county library to be the centerpiece of Town Center.

Today, Rockville Town Center has a beautiful library, mixed-use development, and entertainment that is a regional attraction.

Bridget Newton, an Imagine Rockville participant and now mayor of Rockville, noted: “The Imagine Rockville process brought a hundred residents into the process of articulating a future for our community and then kept people engaged in the process of implementation. Imagine Rockville was the barn-raising process that turned downtown Rockville into everybody’s neighborhood.”

Unique to Imagine Rockville was not only the accomplishments that came out of the process but also the very process itself, which was innovative and effective. Imagine Rockville borrowed from a concept known as Future Search that was developed in Australia then brought to the United States and adapted for use in these types of specific engagements with residents.

The process in Rockville was replicated in Mansfield, Connecticut (Mansfield 2020, 2008); Worthington, Ohio (Worthington 360, 2010); and Clayton, Missouri (C the Future, 2012). Each of these community-based visioning processes used the Future Search process, which uses a specific facilitation technique called a Future Search Conference.

What Is a Search Conference?

The Future Search Conference model is an innovative and exciting way to include a community in planning its future. In regards to community-based strategic planning, a search conference model is used to develop a unified community vision that identifies both the vision and actions to be taken to achieve that vision.

The search conference “brings people together to achieve breakthrough innovation, empowerment, shared vision, and collaborative action” (Discovering Common Ground, Marvin R. Weisbord, 1992, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, California. A subsequent book, Future Search: An Action Guide to Finding Common Ground in Organizations and Communities, was published in 2000 by Berrett-Koehler.) Elements of a search conference include environmental scanning, identification of key issues, articulation of likely and desired futures, and action plans that are designed to set the implementation process in motion.

The search conference is a strategic planning event that is purposefully designed to be inclusive and action oriented. It is a participative planning method that enables people to create their desired future. It is a flexible process designed for today’s rapidly changing environments. Participants in the search conference create a plan based on shared ideals with tangible and flexible goals.

Clayton, Missouri: C the Future. Clayton, Missouri, is a successful suburb of St. Louis that is also known as that city’s “second skyline.” In 2011, the community’s elected officials decided to engage the community in a strategic planning process to commemorate its centennial and chart a course for the next 100 years.

The participants examined community programs and processes and strategized about what elements needed to be addressed in order to achieve the desired future. Figure 2 is an artist’s representation of what C the Future participants identified as critical issues to address.

From that process the community identified four critical success factors that would enable the community to attain its desired future:

  • Exceptional city services.
  • Livable community.
  • Strategic relationships.
  • Economic development and vibrant downtown.

A directional statement was written and key initiatives identified for each of these areas. While many initiatives did involve Clayton city government, some were decidedly community-based and required the engagement of the community’s two universities, public and private schools, and its active business community to make them happen.

The Vision for Clayton—Clayton is recognized regionally and nationally as a premier city of its size and character. The community is a safe, vibrant destination defined by its unique combination of leading businesses and educational institutions, the seat of county government and picturesque neighborhoods, all of which combine to provide an exceptional quality of life—and shown in Figure 3 might resonate with managers who wish for their communities to create an idyllic environment for people to thrive. The difference in Clayton was the dedication to making sure the dreams would make a difference.

Community is created when people are allowed to engage their heads, their hearts, and their hands in establishing something tangible. Community-based strategic planning is more than a technique to establish a strategic plan. It is a strategy for engaging residents and creating community.

Figure 2. C the Future Community Issues.

Novak article - ProbabaleDesiredFuture


This is an artist’s representation of what C the Future participants in Clayton, Missouri, identified as critical issues to address.


Figure 3. Vision for Clayton, Missouri, in Word Cloud Format.

Novak article - Vision graphic


Core Concepts and Values of a Search Conference

  • People are an extraordinary source of information about the world.
  • People can have a role in creating their desired future.
  • People like opportunities to engage their heads, hands, and hearts.
  • People can participate in collaborative planning and collaborative action.
  • Content experts who participate in a search must fully engage in the process.
  • People participate as individuals with their own experiences and information, not as a representative of, or for, any single interest group.
  • Facilitators manage the time and the tasks, not the content.
  • Participants must be willing to investigate the ideas of others (listen with respect).


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