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Mission: possible

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.

A good strategic plan:
  • Provides a focus for the utility employees, managers, and municipal officials.
  • Defines the level of service expected by the customers.
  • Better prepares the utility for handling unexpected issues.

Most municipal water and sewer departments prepare and update master plans and capital improvement plans from time to time. These plans focus on infrastructure improvements and what needs to be done to meet the needs of the utility—upgrading aging facilities, expanding service, complying with new regulations, and so on.

In some states, departments also may submit capacity development reports and capacity management, operations, and maintenance (CMOM) studies. Even so, few public utilities look at the long-term “big picture.” Strategic plans look beyond those capital improvements and focus on other critical issues that a municipal utility must plan for. A strategic plan defines the mission of the utility and the issues that are critical to its success, and develops strategies to address those issues.

WHY YOU NEED A STRATEGIC PLAN

Many municipal water and wastewater systems operate under a board of water or sewer commissioners, selectmen, town manager, or mayor. These positions are typically volunteer or have minor stipends, meet several times a month, and may have numerous other municipal responsibilities. While the utility's day-to-day operation is controlled by a full-time manager or superintendent, accountability to the public is the responsibility of the board or municipal officer. These officials need guidance and standards for maintaining the long-term vision for the utility, which is what a strategic plan provides.

HOW TO CREATE A PLAN

The process for developing a strategic plan for municipal utilities is similar to that of a business plan; however, a utility's issues, goals, and strategies are focused more on operations, service to customers, and financial stability, whereas a business would look at growth and profits.

In developing a utility's strategic plan, first review the municipality's other plans, including the capital improvement plan, community master plan, budgets and financial plans, or capacity development and operations plans. You can use these plans to make sure you stay in line with the overall town or city goals and processes. There may be some overlap, but it is best to keep the strategic plan separate and to make connections as part of the action plan.

Strategic planning involves seven primary steps:

1: Identify key issues. The development of the strategic plan should focus on issues that are road blocks to realizing the utility's vision. The Plainville, Mass., Water and Sewer Department began strategic planning after a minor water quality violation. As planning began, the voluntary Board of Water and Sewer Commissioners realized daily operations and public confidence could easily be disrupted by a number of issues. The commissioners and employees held a planning session and identified twelve issues as critical to the success of their vision.

  • Staffing (maintaining, future retirements, etc.)
  • Water supply capacity/ability to meet demands
  • Operating procedures
  • Aging infrastructure
  • Regulatory compliance
  • Rates and cost of service.

Issues like these vary from system to system, but it is important to identify and prioritize them in the beginning of the planning process by reviewing:

  • Benchmarking with similar systems
  • Customer complaints, surveys, and input
  • Service area growth
  • Organizational structure/staff responsibilities
  • Status of capital improvements
  • Budgets and financial data.

2: Develop a mission. The mission statement is a short statement that defines the purpose and values of your utility. It is the message you want your employees and customers to hear and understand.

What makes up a utility's mission statement? Here are some examples:

“It is the mission of the department of public works to enhance the town's quality of life, and through sound management, innovation, teamwork, and vision, provide dependable, high-quality, responsive public works and utility services consistent with community values and at reasonable cost to its citizens, businesses, institutions, and visitors.”

“It is the mission of the Water District to provide a reliable supply of high-quality water at a reasonable price to our customers and to be responsible stewards of the public's water infrastructure, fiscal, and natural resources.”

“The Department of Public Works is dedicated to delivering engineering and operational services that provide the community with pride in their city and its work-force.”