Strategic planning in a public works sector: Linking it all together

Rhonda Sturgis, Ed.D.
Deputy Coordinator
Emergency Operations Center
City of Newport News, Virginia

With the reduction in local government budgets and the increase in citizen taxes, city agencies are required more than ever to show success for the dollars that are being spent. In addition, in a public works sector, services are visible to citizens, and it is a necessity that departments are able to prove what activities they are pursuing and show that they are managing their funds responsibly. Due to this increased demand, strategic planning has become an important part of organizational management.

Strategic management planning is a process that helps organizations be responsive to the dynamic, changing environment of today's government arena. For example, the Department of Public Works in Newport News, Virginia uses the process to align the department's annual goals and objectives with its mission, vision and values, and to establish performance measures that demonstrate the productivity and stewardship of tax dollars and revenue from other funding sources, such as solid waste user fees. This process involves a complex and complete set of planning steps that take into consideration many constituents and circumstances for current and future organizational decision-making.

When beginning a strategic planning process, it is important to determine who should be involved in creating the organizational direction. The executive staff usually makes this determination. In an ideal setting, strategic planning should involve not only executive staff, but also front-line professionals and possibly some constituents that influence the organization's production. Creating a strategic management planning committee from multiple levels provides for an outlook with a broader organizational perspective. In addition to a broader perspective, it is easier to get employees to buy into the strategic plan when they assist in its creation.

Once a committee is established, it is imperative that constituents and factors that influence the organization are determined before the strategic planning process begins. This allows the committee to become aware of internal and external factors influencing the decision-making process within the department. Within a public works sector, these constituents and factors may include the following:

  • City Managers
  • Mayor
  • City Council Members
  • State or City Addresses
  • Citizens and Citizen Groups
  • Legislation
  • Departmental Needs
  • Employees
  • American Public Works Association (Accreditation Practices and Association Suggestions)
  • Budget

When the department is able to determine what constituents and factors influence the decision-making process, a strategic plan can be developed.

The strategic planning process begins by creating a mission. The mission defines the organization's purpose and tells everyone whom the agency is serving. The mission statement is imperative because it provides the overall direction of the organization. It elicits motivation and emotion, creating an environment where employees take pride in their organization. Finally, a mission statement is measurable, definable, and is reasonably actionable. The mission statement is a broad idea that will remain in effect for many years.

The vision statement is the next item that is created. This statement relays to individuals what the organization wants to become. This process stretches the department's capabilities, but is a realistic projection. The vision has a set timeframe and is usually a five-year projection. Like the mission statement, the vision statement has to be measurable and definable. A good vision statement encourages employees to find pride and excitement in fulfilling the vision of the organization.

Two additional items that are of importance are the creation of values and a code of ethics. Values are the traits and behaviors that show how the organization values its customers, employees, and suppliers. The code of ethics provides a guideline for the conduct of its employees. These two items provide a guideline for acceptable behavior of reaching an organization's mission and vision.

Once the mission, vision, values and code of ethics are created, it is of utmost importance to ensure that the organization is staying on track with what has been projected. The only way of doing this is to ensure that all decisions are made based upon the mission and vision of the organization. The easiest way of staying on track is to create goals and objectives that are in alignment with the organizational direction. Goals are created as a general intention of the organization, and the objectives are a more specific path of how to accomplish the goal. Again, as with the mission and vision, goals and objectives must be realistic and measurable. The goal should align with the mission and vision so that it assists in achieving the overall organizational success.

Goals and objectives need to be created for each type of activity within the department. For example, in a public works sector, one department may have goals and objectives for several divisions, such as waste management, street maintenance, and building services. Those responsible for the action items should be held accountable for creating the goals and objectives, ensuring they are in alignment with the mission and vision, and held accountable for the successful completion of the items. Timelines of these goals should be developed with projections of the steps taken to accomplish the goal and objective as well as completion dates. This allows the department to determine that they are staying on track with meeting their vision in a timely fashion and allows for changes to be made as needed.

It is also important for goals and objectives to be created within budget constraints. If employees do not have the tools or money to perform the goal or objective, then it should not be created. For best results, it is good to establish goals and objectives during the budget process so that it aligns with what monies will be needed to meet the mission and vision of the organization. Finally, it is good to determine what type of constituent or factor caused the goal and objective to be created because it allows the department to determine who or what is influencing decisions that the organization is making. Well-created goals and objectives allow an organization to develop a process for achieving the mission and vision.

From the objectives created, performance measures should be developed. Performance measures allow the organization to determine its success in meeting the mission, vision, goals and objectives. These measures should determine not only if the goal and objective have been met, but also if it has been a success. For example, if a goal is to increase the recycling rate for the city, then it is important to track the recycling rate to see if it has actually increased. Performance measures allow organizations to show success with activities being performed and also assist in determining when goals and objectives are not being achieved as originally envisioned. For example, it may be determined that it is a waste of tax dollars to spend money on creating a utility council, but worth the effort to charge utilities when the company cuts a newly constructed street for utility replacement.
Following is an example of a goal, objective and performance measure, created based upon the mission of the Solid Waste Division within the Newport News Department of Public Works:

Mission: The mission of the Solid Waste Division is to provide efficient, environmentally responsible collection and disposal of residential waste and to promote responsible commercial waste handling.

Goal: To become environmentally responsible for waste material.

Objective: Increase recycling rate through the new automated program.

Source: This is a place to put how the goal came about (citizens, legislative, etc.).

Responsible Party: Name of party responsible for goal.

Outcome: Increase in recycling rate.

Measure: Recycling rate.


                         Automated Recycling
Task Item                                                     Date
Draft/release IFB for carts and trucks

Begin development of promotional campaign

Begin collection conversion work plan

Assess alternative collection methods for multi-family housing

Create educational materials and solicit speaking engagements

Order carts and trucks

Begin speaking engagements and distribute educational materials

Distribute automated carts

Begin Automated Recycling Program

Status: Each quarter, a narrative of the status tells what is happening with the goal and if any changes need to be made.

Measures: This is what you should be tracking.

For best results, it is good to evaluate the goals, objectives and performance measures on a quarterly basis. This allows the organization to report on the measures and make adjustments as necessary so everyone stays on track with the task at hand. An annual review of the complete process should be performed to ensure everything is in alignment with the mission and vision of the organization. If major changes occur that could possibly change the organizational environment, then it is important to have an immediate review by the committee created to determine if changes need to be made. Strategic management planning is a continuous process that establishes and evaluates the direction of the organization.

Newport News Public Works has achieved a number of goals and objectives related to achieving and maintaining national accreditation from the American Public Works Association. These include written Debris and Snow Removal Plans and documentation for Standard Operating Procedures.

Strategic management planning is an important process for all organizations, especially public works agencies. With the influence and contact that this type of department has on citizens, it is imperative that they plan for the changing needs of the future and are able to prove they are being responsible stewards. By following this direct process, strategic planning can be a simple success that provides many returns.

Rhonda Sturgis, Ed.D., can be reached at (757) 269-2700 or