Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Strategic Planning of a Rust Belt City

Strategic Plans in Government

As I was reading about corporate strategic planning this week, I couldn’t help but ask: how does this apply to cities? Can cities have strategic plans? Are the processes and best practices the same as in corporate planning? I’d like to write a little about a problem identified in “Using the Balanced Scorecard as a Strategic Management System” (Kaplan and Norton, 2007) for both corporations, but also for cities: “the inability to link…a long-term strategy with short-term [financial] actions.” I'll focus on Youngstown, a medium-sized city in Northeast Ohio (and my hometown), that completed a strategic plan in 2005.

Youngstown 2010 Plan: To shrink

In 2002, Youngstown embarked on a process to create a city-wide plan. For those of you who don’t know the story of Rust Belt cities, I will provide a brief overview: Youngstown, like Pittsburgh, was a steel town. Jobs in steel mills provided a quality income, and people in Youngstown were comfortably in the middle class. In the late 1970s, steel plants closed and moved overseas or to the South where there were fewer regulations and no unions. Left without jobs, more and more people started to move away, and jobs never came back. The City of Youngstown had been left to maintain the infrastructure built for twice the population (and tax revenue) as it has now. In 2002, residents and city leaders finally agreed that the steel mills were not coming back, and something had to be done. I went to one of these community planning meetings (as an excited high school student), and a auditorium full of people gave suggestions, feedback, and a vision for Youngstown in the next few years. After the “2010” plan was completed, Youngstown received great press nationally and even internationally. This article describes the overall strategy upon which Youngstown decided in its plan: to shrink. At this time, no city had really talked about shrinking. The model had always been growth: a city cannot survive unless it grows. But here was a city suggesting its survival depended upon shrinking.

Although there are some differences, the planning of Youngstown 2010 was similar to the best-practices described in “The Real Value of Strategic Planning” (Kaplan & Beinhocker, 2003) and “How to Improve Strategic Planning” (Dye & Sibony, 2007). The process took time. In fact, the Youngstown 2010 plan took over two years to create. Residents, officials, and business owners had an opportunity to let their ideas heard. The plan wasn’t just a template of vague ideas, but an innovative set of objectives to lead the city.

It's Already 2012

I’d love to report that Youngstown has taken this widely-acclaimed plan and has achieved its objectives for 2010. But that’s where the third reading we read this week comes in. One huge problem in Youngstown is that the Youngstown 2010 Plan wasn’t actually tied to the city’s budget. The city hasn’t been able to afford (and in some cases, willing) to take on the strategies laid out in the plan. Without money, a plan is just a plan on a shelf. Yes, some things have been done. But have all day-to-day decisions been made with the plan in mind. I think anyone involved in Youngstown would tell you the answer is "no."


Pittsburgh is in the midst of creating its very first city-wide plan. It’s called PlanPGH. They are going through each of the core areas separately to get feedback and plan an approach. They are currently soliciting feedback for the transportation portion of the plan. I encourage anyone staying in Pittsburgh to become involved, make your voice heard, and ask if this will actually be tied into the city’s financial plan.

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