All through our lives we make choices. The best of these are based upon what we have prioritized: Spending time with family, furthering our education, or saving money for that necessary purchase. In an ideal situation, these priorities themselves are grounded in some type of vision we have for our future, objectives we hope to achieve. So it is with communities, or at least those that are well governed.
Vision, Priorities, Strategies, Action
In Roanoke this begins with our community vision—that is, what do we collectively aspire toward for our community? The vision for Roanoke that has been used for a number of years is:
The City of Roanoke is a safe, caring and economically vibrant community
in which to live, learn, work, play and prosper
A vibrant urban center with strong neighborhoods set amongst
the spectacular beauty of Virginia’s Blue Ridge
Further, the City Council identifies each year the areas they want to focus on, or prioritize in their pursuit of this vision on behalf of the residents of Roanoke. These strategic priorities guide much of what will occur in the following year—policies, legislative agenda, budget, etc. The current strategic priorities for Roanoke are:
Obviously, one can imagine dozens if not hundreds of different ways to act on each of these priorities. For example, one could approach Economy with an emphasis on attracting national retailers and new industry, or focus on supporting small businesses and increasing the skills of our local workforce. These choices become the strategies used by the City within each of the priorities, the “how” and “why” part of the process. These strategies form the basis of the actions that will then be taken throughout the year by the various departments of the City government. These become the “what” part of the process. Additional details may be found in the City’s Strategic Plan available on the City’s website.
Community visions are generational in scope—that is, they are relatively fixed and focused on the long-term. Strategies, on the other hand, may change every few years, often with election cycles or due to some major disruption or innovation. Actions are the most dynamic, generally differing year by year.
The process begins annually in the summer, as the Council convenes for their strategic retreat. This is followed in the early fall with a budget planning retreat. These two events form the foundation for the remainder of the year’s major activities—budget, legislative agenda, etc. Throughout the remainder of the year, City staff works with the Council to form a budget that reflects Council priorities that enables actions aligned with the selected strategies. A similar process is used as the Council and staff prepare a legislative agenda to put forward to the General Assembly for consideration. All the while as these steps are being taken, staff is carrying out actions aligned with the adopted policies and strategies using the allocated funds of the current year.
Some may advocate for greater speed in pivoting on Council priorities, strategies, actions, and budgets. In some instances this is necessary and prudent. For example, the City just recently had to alter its budget and actions as a result of a significant shortfall in projected revenues. In other instances, though frustrating as it may be, thoughtful deliberation that ensures inclusion of as many perspectives and voices as practical makes the most sense. Such a process ensures policy and strategies are formulated in response to sound governance, not political expediency. However, it is critical that the process not become an impediment to adaptation to changing circumstances, devolving from a prudent approach to governing into a stalled bureaucracy. Balancing the urgent with the strategic is necessary. Messy as it is, this is how we govern best.
-- Bob Cowell