Many know by now that the City of Merrill government is for the first time ever developing a strategic plan. The primary anticipated outcome of the project is for those government officials taking part, including the mayor, council, the city administrator, and city department heads, to more clearly define the role of city government in helping to make Merrill even more vibrant well into the future. The initial planning meeting occurred Jan. 23. The second meeting was cancelled because several council members and department heads were ill. Two meetings are scheduled in March and another in April. More are expected in subsequent months.
During the first meeting, the leaders involved in the process began to develop visions for both city government and the community. Although not all cities across America complete this type of exercise, many of the “top performers” do. Many have much smaller populations compared to the Madisons and the Milwaukees of the world. Strategic planning is in some ways even more crucial for smaller municipalities because they often not only compete with each other but with larger cities for limited resources. Not having a plan, one rooted in an effective vision, can hurt a local government’s ability to compete for those resources not to mention run its own affairs in the most efficient and effective ways possible.
Vision development (as well as mission development-the current, most significant purpose of the organization) often begins with the identification of core values. Core values are the principles under which organizations conduct their business. If core values are not followed, principles are weakened which in turn damages trust.
In order to generate an initial list of core values for city government, I asked those at the meeting “What is the definition of ‘success’ as it relates to City of Merrill government?” Responses included “customer satisfaction; greatest good for the most residents; responsive; easy to do business with; adaptable; consistent; highest level of quality service; fairness; progress; active listening; interact well; lack of capacity to provide all the services people request; safety; positive outlook; and trust.”
Considering the list, I then asked “What can and should this city government do to ensure its success well into the future?” The following was mentioned.
• Create trust that services will be provided, consistent, and constant.
• Provide listening/town hall sessions.
• Educate citizens about how a committee-based government works (i.e. important discussions take place and important decisions are often made at the committee level).
• Find ways to keep younger folks in town or bring them back after college. (What is needed?).
• Resourcefulness and adaptability.
• Attract and retain skill levels needed for the future.
• Treat current and future government employees as an asset.
Those present were then asked to develop newspaper headlines about city government and the community that they would hope to see a decade from now. Responses included but were not limited to “Merrill Government Continues Forward with Vision that was Created 10 Years Ago;” “Merrill City Department Heads each Secure $1 million in Grants in Support of City Services;” “Truly Something for Everyone, City of Merrill Showcases a Unique Blend of Beautiful Natural Resources, Quaint Shopping, and Friendly Faces;” and “Merrill, Gateway to the Northwoods is Bustling Again.”
At the next meeting, participants will use all this information to begin developing a vision statement that represents what Merrill city government should be known for and how it should aspire to operate. The vision statement will reflect how key stakeholders within city government want their efforts to be remembered 10, 15, even 20 years from now. A similar process will be used to develop a community vision statement, one that will not only inspire government but also residents to collaborate in the effort which in many ways has already begun to strengthen the area’s quality of life and make Merrill a more popular destination.
Interested public can participate in these processes in a couple ways. First, email or mail your ideas to me (Arthur.firstname.lastname@example.org or UW-Extension, 801 N. Sales St, Merrill, 54452). Your input will be presented to the planning group and will remain anonymous unless you choose otherwise. Or second, attend the planning sessions that have already been scheduled (March 6, March 27, and April 17, City Hall Council Chambers, 5:30). Other possible ways to garner public input will be discussed at the meetings.
Systematically planning for the future is something that all governments, all organizations should do. Those that do not, risk operating in a world where they are always dealing with crises and never thinking about how things should be in the future. Municipalities that abstain from planning also may find it difficult to determine how to attract new residents and keep citizens engaged. City leaders should be commended for undertaking such an involved, thoughtful process at a critical time in Merrill’s existence.