The unstrategic anti-plan returns

ZombieWednesday’s standing committee heard that the so-called “community-based strategic plan” has risen from the dead – a document that was committee-driven (not community; and a committee of carefully selected buddies, at that…), and was neither strategic nor a plan. See it in the agenda package.

A real strategic plan would have been council-driven, based on the vision of our elected representatives. But having none, The Block turned it over to an outsider and their friends to come up with something.*

Once The Block approved its creation in 2015, the resulting document, the ‘CBSP,’** became a bureaucratic zombie that never seems to die, like an extra in some cheesy Bruce Campbell B-flick. And like that undead extra, it continues to ring the cash register.

This zombie is supposed to be a “report card,” but instead it lists all sorts of minutiae that council patted its collective backs over, even though most things listed were simply part of some larger process, or just staff’s regular jobs. For The Block to even comment on them would be to micro-manage. Or even nano-manage them. It’s called the “2016 Report Card” even though 2016 is only two-thirds through. Maybe the other third of the year doesn’t matter, as long as the consultant gets paid.

And of course, The Block wants to take credit for this and for what staff do. Like they actually rolled up their sleeves and dug in to do some real work instead of meeting in secret to plot and scheme and raise your taxes.

So in a term highlighted by having no accomplishments for the greater good, the “CBSP” has become The Block’s poster child for their idea of success.

They hope that by waving it around periodically you’ll be so dazzled by its brilliance that you’ll forget that they raised your taxes. Twice. Or that they destroyed our 150-year-old working partnership between water and energy utilities and are running our electricity corporation into the ground. Or that they are trying (in secret meetings, of course) to kill the airport industrial park and its 400-plus jobs. Or that they almost scuttled the hospital redevelopment (and are still trying to do so…). Or they gave Councillor ‘Senator’ Jeffrey an unlimited expense account to wine and dine across the country (but apparently not Oakville where the latest FCM meeting was held – probably the in-drive food service and movie are terrible… and she can’t get her warm Camembert in the car…). Or the staff morale they’ve shattered.

But I know that you, dear reader, aren’t fooled. If this dreck is all they have to show for two years at the table, then it’s a sorry statement. But let’s take a closer look at it…

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The Hidden Agenda in the Strategic Plan

Hidden agendaMy final comment for the next while on the town’s committee-based wishlist (the so-called community-based strategic plan, of which it is neither) has to do with biased and partisan comments made in the document’s introduction.

This material was presented to council in the recent versions (approved by a 7-1 vote, as expected, with one councillor absent) but not included in all earlier draft versions. I believe it represents the influence of the former VOTE (Voters Opposed To Everything) special interest group and their later followers in the deputy mayor’s special interest group, known locally (and humorously) as Better If I’m Elected, Collingwood.

What sort of strategic plan contains politically-charged and clearly partisan statements about former councils? The comments in the introduction expose the hidden agenda behind the wish list, and for council watchers this helps identify the shadowy players who pull council’s strings behind the scenes. This was less a community project than one manipulated by special interest groups.

For example, the document notes:

There have been in recent years, however, some challenges in the manner that Collingwood has managed its financial obligations and communication with Town (sic) residents. This has resulted in cynicism and a loss of faith in local politics within the public-at-large (sic).

This, or course, is complete malarky. There has been NO loss of faith was among the public at large (what survey, or what community-wide poll showed this?).

The small group of naysayers who worked their followers into a froth of vituperation and anger over the previous council do not represent the public at large. This small group never lost faith because they had none to start with, and was cynical from the very start.

Their raison d’etre is and has always been negativity towards anything they alone did not conceive, plan, or accomplish. True, they managed to garner a biased media’s support for their agenda later in the term, but the media ceased to represent the community, and instead represented the special interests – the point being made when the outgoing editor/reporter personally endorsed the current deputy mayor during the election campaign.

The facts about financial management are quite different. Last term, council was able to pay down its inherited debt by $8 million with only a single year of increased taxes (less than 1% blended rate), while building reserves, and constructing two beautiful, efficient recreational facilities without adding to the debt.

The financial management last term was superb – better in fact than any council I was part of previously and better than any I reported on as a reported and editor since 1991. What is there to challenge? That it was done so well, and so efficiently? This council’s first major act was to RAISE taxes in order to give itself a pay hike.

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Trivial Pursuits

Dilbert

Now that the draft version of the so-called “community-based strategic plan” has been presented to council, I felt it appropriate to comment on this latest version. I have already posted several pieces on the earlier draft. If you haven’t read them, you should start with there:

Strategic Planning, Part One: The Woo-Hoo Factor
Strat Plan Part 2: The Shuffle Game
Strat Plan Part 3: The Waterfront
Strat Plan Part 4: Economic Vitality
Strat Plan Part 5: Healthy Lifestyle
Strat Plan Part 6: Culture and the Arts
Strat Plan Wrap Up: Addintional Comments

All the comments and criticisms made in these earlier posts still have relevance in this latest draft.

I say the document is so-called because it’s not really community-based: it’s committee-based, and it’s just a wishlist, not a plan. It doesn’t even adumbrate a plan.

A proper plan should have measurable actions, a detailed timeline, specific costs and budget laid out. This has none of that. It has some vague time frames listed a S-M-L (short, medium and long terms) but these are 1-3, 3-5 and 5-10 years, respectively. Nothing to aim at as an immediate goal.  And no priorities are identified among the wishlist items.

Given that no council can bind a subsequent one, and there is but three years left in this council’s term, and equally that after five years, almost every plan or policy is out of date and needs revision, planning beyond the short term for most of these wishes is pointless. Not to mention that there is no indication who will pay for these wishes, or how.

First let me say that the new draft is very pretty. It looks attractive in the way that every other generic, bland strategic plan of this ilk does. However, style cannot top substance, and no matter how much of the former is present, the document lacks the latter. So let’s look at the presentation while we measure the content.

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Strat Plan Wrap Up: Addintional Comments

Mao's red book
The Plan is presented to council.

Yes, the web page really does call for “Addintional Comments.” Well, I suppose consultants aren’t hired for their spelling or grammar. Otherwise there wouldn’t be all that bizarre capitalization or the missing punctuation. But you’re here to read my summation of the Collingwood’s fledgling strategic plan, not my editorial critique.

Which is pretty simple: woo-hoo. I reiterate that a strategic plan can be either practical and pragmatic, or woo-hoo. This one is woo-hoo.

By which I mean it is airy fairy collection of generalities, seasoned with ignorance, ideology and irrelevancies and very little actual direction. Well, most woo-hoo plans are. They aren’t meant as a guide to actual accomplishments: they’re meant to make people feel like they accomplished something without having to do the heavy lifting.

It’s not a “strategic plan” – it’s merely a feel-good exercise by people who didn’t want to ask questions in case the facts spoil their recommendations (like finding our your action item was done last term or there has been a corridor to the waterfront for several years now…).

Peter Drucker, author of Management Tasks and Responsibilities (1973) listed four misconceptions about the term “strategic planning” that you can see plague Collingwood’s proposed plan:

  1. Strategic planning is not a box of tricks, a bundle of techniques.
  2. Strategic planning is not forecasting.
  3. Strategic planning does not deal with future decisions.
  4. Strategic planning is not an attempt to eliminate risk.

What strategic planning is, Drucker said, is:

…the continuous process of making present entrepreneurial (risk-taking) decisions systematically and with the greatest knowledge of their futurity; organizing systematically the efforts needed to carry out these decisions; and measuring the results of these decisions against the expectations through organized, systematic feedback.

Get that? It’s a continual process, not a one-time effort. And it’s measurable. Collingwood’s “plan” is nothing more than a bundle of wishful thinking tied up with buzzwords.

It really doesn’t matter that the town is already doing much of what the plan recommends, nor that the previous council accomplished so many of the things identified as action items. These facts get in the way of those dancing around this May pole, so they will be ignored. “The common people,” Confucius said, “can be made to follow a path but not to understand it.” (Analects, Book VIII, 9)*

This is the vaunted “plan” for our future as promised by now-Deputy Mayor Saunderson during the election campaign within 90 days of being elected. It will be presented on the 287th day, only late by half a year. It won’t be counted as an accomplishment, merely as a waste of taxpayers’ money.

As a “plan,” it’s as useful as comprehensive, insightful and focused guide to the town’s present and future as a fishing pole is to planting corn.

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Strategic Planning, Part One: The Woo-Hoo Factor

Dilbert
There are, in general, two kinds of municipal strategic plans. One is pragmatic and practical. It tells you what you need to build, fix or replace, when you need to do it, how much it will cost, and where the money will come from. This is the stuff a council grounded in reality can use to budget, plan sensibly, and maintain the community’s infrastructure. It’s a roadmap that leads to a well-defined destination.

The other kind of plan is best described by the term woo-hoo. It’s an airy, feel-good exercise that spews forth happy catch phrases, the more nebulous the better. This is the stuff of wet dreams born of vague campaign platforms and fuelled by cliché-ridden dogma meant as a collective group hug without actually doing anything concrete. It’s an entrance to the fairy world where you can freely wander among the flowers.

I’ve seen the latest stage of Collingwood’s nascent strategic plan and in two words I would describe it: woo-hoo.

Over several posts, I’ll look at the “plan” as proposed, and critique it. It starts by asking participants to rank a “vision statement.” A vision statement, it says, is described as,

…inspirational. It brings together the priorities, thoughts and desires of a community to describe the ideal future for a community.”

Actually, what council needs is a mission statement that tells voters what it intends to accomplish in its term not a slice of spongy white bread. A mission statement can include a vision but there’s a goal in it. To boldly go where no one has gone before, is a mission statement, albeit a bit vague for municipalities. To fumble and flail and stumble wildly in the public eye while forgetting procedures and campaign promises… well, I suppose that’s a mission statement of sorts, too.

But let’s look at the five “vision statements” proposed for Collingwood (try not to let your eyes glaze over):

  1. Collingwood is a responsible and sustainable place for business that leverages its vibrant downtown, waterfront and natural assets to offer a healthy, affordable, four season lifestyle to its residents.
  2. The Collingwood of the future is a diverse, affordable and sustainable community that will grow based on its core strengths: waterfront, downtown and natural heritage.
  3. Collingwood is a responsible and sustainable community that leverages its vibrant downtown, waterfront, and natural assets to offer a healthy, four season lifestyle to its residents, visitors and businesses.
  4. Collingwood is the place where healthy living, excellence in government and a commitment to each other create a community that takes pride in its waterfront, its stewardship of the natural environment and its historical past.
  5. Collingwood is a thriving waterfront community that leverages its natural, economic and cultural heritage assets to promote a healthy lifestyle for all.

Don’t they just want you make you sing Kumbaya around the campfire? All those warm and cuddly generic, cookie-cutter statements that strain to avoid identifying Collingwood as a unique community. And all those buzzwords: leverage, excellence, thriving, sustainable, core strengths… sure, they’re all old and tired from overuse, but surely there’s still life in these old chestnuts if we drag them out of retirement and flail them. Why not sprinkle in a few more, like paradigm shift, prioritize, synergy and proactive? Really make it sticky sweet. (and let’s overlook the missing hyphen from four-season for the moment…)

And, of course, meaningless. Where are the action verbs? Where are the concrete, measurable goals?

Simple test: replace Collingwood in the lines above with the name of any other municipality with a waterfront and see if it makes a difference. Barrie.Toronto. Midland. Kingston. Ottawa. Nope, One is easily replaced with the other.

Continue reading “Strategic Planning, Part One: The Woo-Hoo Factor”