Launch Slideshow

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Mission: possible

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    Developing a strategic plan should be a team effort, with municipal officials, utility managers, staff, and other stakeholders contributing. Photo: Stantec Consulting Inc.

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    Much like a business plan for its future, cities and towns must also look ahead regarding their utilities. Photo: Stantec Consulting Inc.

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    A good strategic plan provides guidance for all stakeholders, from city officials down to operations staff.

3: Develop a long-term vision. The vision statement paints a picture of where the utility will be in the next five years. This statement should direct where the utility is going. It should be inspirational, multidimensional, and descriptive, but also realistic and obtainable. Developing the vision of a municipal utility should include input from non-utility municipal officials to share the community's vision with the utility.

4: Develop strategies to address the issues and vision. After you've identified the issues facing the utility, develop the strategies for addressing them. These strategies are statements and ideas that will help you reach your vision. Some of the strategies that Plainville developed are:

  • Adequately staff the Water and Sewer Department to comply with regulatory requirements, maintain the system, provide for staff retention and transition, and provide quality service.
  • Improve the operational efficiency of the water and sewer systems.
  • Manage existing water supplies and continue to develop supplies to meet current and future water system demands.
  • Systematically improve, upgrade, and replace existing infrastructure.
  • Provide stable and equitable water and sewer rates.

5: Establish definable and measurable goals.After developing your strategies, set goals to measure the plan's progress. The most effective goals are “SMART”—specific, measurable, achievable, resource-based, and time-assessed. In business, goals are typically performance-based—grow revenue by 12% per year, for example. In a water or wastewater utility, goals are typically more operations- or performance-based. Some examples:

  • Have all staff attain a minimum of a T-2 license within two years.
  • Keep rate increases to 5% for a five-year period.
  • Reduce unaccounted-for water by 50% this year.

The key to setting successful goals is to set standards or a bar for the expected results. Using benchmarks and performance indicators, such as those included in the American Water Works Association's QualServe benchmarking program, can help you clarify your goals and objectives. Once you've set those goals, publicize them and celebrate when they're met.

6: Develop action plans. Action plans lay out the specific tasks that will allow your utility to implement its strategies and meet its goals. An effective action plan identifies those tasks, assigns them to named staff, and sets specific dates. The Plainville Water and Sewer Department developed the following action plan for a specific strategy—adequately staffing the department:

Prepare a Water and Sewer Department staffing plan. The plan will include evaluation of duties and responsibilities (job description) of current Water and Sewer Department positions, regulatory requirements, typical standards of similar utilities, an organizational chart, and recommendations for implementation. Complete by July 1, assigned to Jim Smith.

Review the skills, licenses, and career goals of the current staff and develop individual career paths, training requirements, and action plans for each staff member. Complete by July 1, assigned to Lee Jones.

Identify vacant staff positions and work with the town employment board to fill vacancies. Complete by Aug. 31, assigned to Jim Smith.

Develop a staff transition plan to account for staff retirement/replacement. Complete by Oct. 1, assigned to Sarah Hill.

Many action plans fail because of a lack of follow-up on the action plan items. While the strategic plan belongs to the group, a single person should monitor its progress, communicate the results, and hold people to their assignments. The group should then review the status of the plan on a regular basis.

7: Implement the strategic plan. The most critical step of completing the strategic plan is the implementation phase. This includes communicating the plan throughout the organization and holding people accountable for their action items. The keys to a successful implementation are to:

  • Have a strong champion to lead the process
  • Communicate the plan to everyone
  • Pass out copies of the plan and post it in town reports, Web pages, and other public documents.

Once it is completed, the strategic plan will become a dynamic document that is updated and revised on a regular basis (typically once a year) as action items are completed and new issues arise.

Municipal utilities are owned by the community and the customers. Many have been in operation for more than 100 years under the stewardship of municipal managers, employees, community leaders, and volunteers. Completing and implementing a strategic plan is the means to preserving that legacy and maintaining and improving the utility for future generations.

—Wetzel is a principal with Stantec Consulting Inc. and leads the firm's environmental infrastructure division in New England and New York.