Strategic Planning for Planning Commissions

Dear Management Doctor:

We're looking for some advice and resources to help our Commission as it undertakes a strategic planning process.

We have a Commission of seven citizens appointed by the City Council whose responsibilities concentrate on long-range planning (all permit review is done by a separate body), development of ordinances, and oversight of our Planning Department. Our City has several other Commissions and Boards who have some overlapping jurisdiction and responsibilities for various planning-related functions, including several Committees of the City Council itself. The challenge for the Commission is to stay relevant as the "go-to" voice for advice and recommendations regarding land use and development policy as envisioned under state statute. They are working to understand who else in City government has similar responsibilities, and will be undertaking a series of interviews of important policy-makers to better understand how the Commission is perceived by others and how they can be more effective. Any suggestions or sources of information that we may look to as we move forward would be greatly appreciated.


David E. White, AICP
Burlington, VT

Dear David,

You, of course, could hire a strategic planning consultant to help you. You might try local universities to find one at a low cost. The Management Doctor could also drop by for a day visit (at a higher cost). I would read up on current strategic planning literature and techniques. APA has a book on strategic planning. However, be aware that at least the corporate world is a bit skeptical about the value of traditional approaches. You may have good success just going on this alone.

I have the following thoughts:

  1. Having various other functions make presentations to the Commission is a good start. Maybe even have your Commission monitor another group's meeting.
  2. I have limited experience with New England planning, but the experience I have tells me it is not unusual that there are simply too many commissions to begin with. I worked with one community that had a City Council, Elected Zoning Commission, Planning Commission, and Environmental Commission. I thought one Commission should have been able to handle the work of all three.
  3. We recently did work for Fort Worth and San Antonio. Both have a Planning Commission and a Zoning Commission. We suggested that in both cases they be merged. That recommendation may have been dead on arrival.
  4. There are a few cases, like yours, where the Commission is not involved in permit review. Often, they have the same problem you are having in not seeming relevant. I tend not to like that split and instead like a Commission that does both current and long-range planning. Even the early planning acts suggested that the Zoning Commission and the Planning Commission be merged. However, when merged, we see a different problem. The Commission spends too much time on current planning so that long-range planning suffers. This can be handled by delegating more current planning to staff and/or hearing officers with appeals to the Commission. We are currently doing a survey of the 50 largest U.S. cities. I expect that we will see most of them with merged functions.
  5. Part of the key is how the City Council sees the Commission. Do they appoint the best people? Do they give great weight to the Commission's suggestions? Must the Commission be consulted on Plan adoption, ordinances, capital improvement programs, etc.?
  6. Like any organization, part of the effectiveness rests with the members and particularly the chairman. In contemporary society, leadership and effectiveness comes from leadership, not authority.
Let me know how this all comes out. And, I hope some of our readers can add to these ideas.

The Management Doctor

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