Saint Paul's Strategic Plan

As its ten-year plan ends, Saint Paul Public Library seeks a new five-year vision On the surface, public libraries are islands of calm, but spend a few minutes with any library administrator and a different picture emerges. Waves of new technologies surge in and around our libraries. Visits and computer use are rising like tides, with no apparent crests in sight. The demand for certain "traditional" library services grows in predictable patterns, only to ebb sharply and suddenly, without warning. Meanwhile, demographic shifts, perhaps subtle at first, often result in dramatic changes in the library's external climate. Library managers press onward to meet the daily challenges of keeping the doors open, the books shelved, the computers running, and the patrons well served. How can a public library chart its course amidst this sea of change? The answer is strategic planning. Strategic planning establishes the framework for ongoing implementation efforts, initiatives that take place beyond the daily rhythm. Commitment to long-range planning has enabled the Saint Paul Public Library (SPPL) to tackle effectively critical issues such as improving funding and facilities, enhancing technology, and extending community outreach. SPPL, currently in its last year of a ten-year strategic plan, has initiated a process to create a new five-year strategy. This process - involving the library's administration and staff, the mayor and library board, other city departments, the Friends of SPPL, and a wide range of community groups and individuals - is lengthy and time-consuming. However, the potential rewards are clear and enticing.

What we learned

The previous Saint Paul strategic plan proved successful on many fronts. We came out of it with facility improvements, technological changes, innovations in community outreach, and the creation of homework centers. But the impact of the plan was also profound in unexpected areas. For example, the process aligned the library's internal functional direction with the external community's interests and needs. It provided the vehicle through which a majority of staff came to embody a common vision for the library and actively to engage common goals. This, in turn, enabled the library to focus more effectively on such areas as staff training and helped set priorities for private funding support by the Friends organization. The first truly comprehensive strategic plan for SPPL was completed in 1995, facilitated by the Saint Paul Planning Commission as part of a broader, citywide effort. The process involved extensive community input and was "nested" within other civic involvement endeavors. That plan identified four major objectives: supporting education, serving a changing community, supporting small businesses, and building a regional library system. The 1995 plan was unusual in its scope and length, with broadly based goals undertaken over a ten-year period. Operationally, the library approached implementation of the strategic plan through a series of smaller, three-year work initiatives with annual priorities, target goals, and ongoing evaluations. The plan may have covered too much over too long a period. In a decade, especially that one, for instance, computer technology alone leapt through three or four generations of change. Indeed, in the last few years, SPPL has come to depend more extensively on its one-year operational plans than on its decade-length strategic plan.

When is the time right?

Start a new plan when the old one is completed. Right? This is accurate, but the reality of how and when a public library decides to launch a new strategic planning effort is more complex, subject to a host of internal and external contingencies. Our decision, in 2000, to launch a major, new planning process was precipitated by the looming expiration of the previous plan, but it took almost five years before the library was organizationally ready to reengage in long-range planning. We were slowed down by a few events, not least of all the success of our expiring stratagem. One of the 1995 goals was the complete renovation of the central library, which took place between 2000 and 2002. The renovation required an intensified management workload, sidelining all other large-scale efforts. Then, immediately following the renovation, the library experienced a change of leadership. In early 2003, several key retirements, including the director, resulted in significant changes in our senior management team (the director position has returned to the hands of an interim). It did not seem feasible to launch a major initiative until the leadership transition was finished. Despite these circumstances, pressure to proceed with the planning process escalated. Rapidly changing demographics and emerging technologies made the new effort imperative by late 2003. In 2004, the Friends identified a growing need for a strategic vision to guide private fundraising efforts on the library's behalf. It took until 2005 to garner the resources for a focused strategic planning effort to proceed.

The politics of planning

The 2005 Saint Paul strategic planning effort is projected to cost approximately $80,000 in consultant fees, in addition to the considerable internal commitment of staff time and other resources. We expect to finish in fall 2005, with the delivery of a comprehensive, five-year plan for 2006 - 11. Securing funding for the consulting services has required considerable effort. Perhaps even more important, in order to direct the strategic planning process and work effectively with the consultants, the library has engaged in a preliminary decision-making regimen to define the scope of the process. The "scoping" process has involved numerous stakeholders - library staff at all levels, employee unions, the mayor, the library board, the Friends (which operates as the foundation for the library, providing significant private funds and other annual support, which in some recent years has equaled ten to 15 percent of the library's budget), and other community partners. Primarily administrative staff have overseen the "scoping" efforts, but staff at all levels will be involved in the actual process. The task force charged with creating the planning process has included the library director, administrative services manager, library services manager, materials and technology services manager, central library supervisor, an information services manager from the city, and a representative from the Friends. With the assistance of the consultant, this group will be expanded into a steering committee. Additional members of the steering group will include representatives from youth services, clerks and other paraprofessionals, entry-level librarians, and circulation staff. In addition to the steering committee, a more broadly based advisory committee will include community members and other key informants. Successfully navigating the eddies of the existing political and institutional framework has been perhaps the most challenging aspect of the process. True, the library has received unparalleled support and the unanimous endorsement of its public officials, but any public strategic planning effort is inherently political. In 2004, the institutional framework of SPPL was significantly altered by the creation of a new library levy and governing board. The library did not previously have the power to levy taxes, and it was just a department in the city governed by the city council and mayor. Now, city council members convene separately as the library board, with the power to tax. The individuals haven't changed, but the power and position of the library has increased significantly. This has tied the library directly to the city in a new way, requiring new relationships, particularly those among library administration, the library board, the mayor, and the Friends. In this case, opportunity knocked. The new strategic plan could help solidify these vital relationships. Strategic planning processes often expose both the library and public officials to a broad set of community desires that may not be practically accommodated by the library. Scarce resources and competing concerns form a potent political mix. Public officials and community constituents often express concerns that planning diverts funds from much-needed library services. We found that with good PR and marketing, the public's concern can be countered. A good strategic plan is fundamental to making the library more efficient and cost-effective, and planning efforts are essential to developing additional resources. Also, participation by public officials and community members in the process expands the sense of stewardship over the library.

Launching the process

It might sound redundant, but planning for strategic planning takes time and resources. Saint Paul was guided in its planning process by the Public Library Association's The NEW Planning for Results: A Streamlined Approach, with modifications for the local situation. The process began in earnest in 2003 with a staff retreat that February. This half-day retreat held onsite at the library included most of the library's top administrative and technical staff, as well as select staff from the Friends organization. The retreat, spearheaded by the then - library director in close concert with the library's administrative circle, identified major areas to address in a new plan and recognized the need for more information about the changing communities of Saint Paul. This retreat also fulfilled an important symbolic purpose since it took place during a restructuring of management positions owing to several retirements by long-term staff members. It signaled the beginning of a new era for the library. Following this retreat, discussions with public officials, the regional library system, and the Friends revolved around how to fund the development of the strategic plan. Fortuitously, an opportunity arose through a Library Services and Technology Act grant to conduct a survey of underserved communities in Saint Paul. By early 2004, with the survey work underway, library administration began drafting a Request for Proposal (RFP) to secure the services of a consultant, and discussions about funding were ongoing.

Planning leadership

Strategic planning is an involved process, requiring high-level coordination and commitment across several years. Often a director will take this role, but in Saint Paul, the effort will be led by an experienced library staff person, Debbie Willms, the administrative services manager. Once the plan exists, implementation requires continued focus and leadership, ideally from staff intimately involved in the process. The director needs to be involved in all stages of the planning process, but because it is exhaustive, it may be wise to have another top staffer take the overall lead. In Saint Paul, Willms was chosen to lead the planning effort by Gina La Force, the library director for two years, who resigned for personal reasons in spring 2005. Interim director Kathleen Flynn, previously second-in-command and closely involved in the process from the beginning, has kept Willms in charge of the planning process. As the administrative services manager, Willms oversees the administrative areas of the library, including interdepartmental activities, personnel issues, and staff training. Willms has close to 30 years' experience at SPPL and received her MLS degree in 2002. In the mid-1990s, Willms felt the library was going in a number of contradictory directions. "I either had to engage in guerrilla warfare or work organizationally," she says. "Through the planning process, I was able to gain the responsibility and power to effect meaningful changes." She feels strongly about the necessity of a strategic plan and the involvement of a wide range of staff and community members in the process. As she says, "To do my work, I have to have a good strategic plan."

Vision and goals

The strategic planning process is designed to define practical goals that can be implemented on an annual basis, while simultaneously setting forth a greater vision of the library's overall future. How does one define the goals for the strategic plan? Rather than defining specific outcomes, it is better to identify critical areas to be addressed. In the last few years, a number of issues have arisen in Saint Paul - issues likely to be shared by many libraries across the country: 1) serving better an increasingly diverse and changing community; 2) creating a work force more reflective of the community; 3) creating a vision for technology; and 4) providing stable funding for library services. Additional concerns may emerge during the planning process, but SPPL's goal is to address them in the strategic plan and gather broad internal and community support for the library's future direction.

The grueling RFP

Drafting of the RFP was a long, and somewhat grueling, operation. It involved working closely with the City of Saint Paul's contract services and technology offices to assure that all legal and technical requirements were included and finding creative compromises on key issues concerning the breadth of the services we wanted. The library had hoped to contract for services to produce an integrated strategic and technology plan. However, it was estimated that this would cost in excess of $100,000. In order to bring the cost down to a fundable level, the decision was made to put out an RFP for a strategic plan, which would include a "technology vision" but not a full-fledged technology plan. The goal is to follow up with a technology plan within two years. The RFP for strategic planning services was issued in late fall 2004. By that time, the city had included $45,000 in the 2005 library budget for strategic planning, with the remainder of the $80,000 to come from the regional library system for the development of the technology vision and a grant from the Friends. Eight consulting firms from across the country submitted proposals. With funding set, the steering committee narrowed the field to two firms for interviews, which took place in March 2005. During the interviews, key questions covered defining the specific roles of public officials in the strategic planning process; how community input (including citizen focus groups) would be collected; specific implementation issues, including the annual monitoring of the plan; the steps that would be used to create a technology vision; and the process for reviewing and disseminating the final plan. The committee sought a firm that would help balance extensive involvement by diverse communities with the need for a focused, realizable, practical plan that the library could reasonably implement over five years. The committee selected Providence Associates, Inc. of Cottonwood, AZ, to oversee the strategic planning effort. The firm had done previous work in Saint Paul and was familiar with SPPL.

Four phases

The planning process will take approximately six months, with completion by the end of 2005. As outlined by the consultants, the process will unfold in four phases. The first phase - the project start-up - will consist largely of gathering available data, both about the community from the most recent census and additional data from the city planning and economic development office, and also about the current state and condition of the library. In phase two - which looks at community and staff needs and expectations - more active data collection and analysis will be pursued. This will include surveys, focus groups, key stakeholder interviews, and an assessment of the capacity of current facilities and resources. In phase three, we will develop the comprehensive strategic plan. This stage will include determining strategic issues and possible methods for addressing them, creating a preliminary draft plan, presenting the plan to the community for comment, and completing a final internal review of the draft plan. The last phase will be planning for implementation. It includes preparing staffing and funding plans, creating the final plan, and presenting the plan to the seven members of the library board and the mayor for final approval.

Next steps

The successes or failures of the new comprehensive strategic plan will be evaluated in stages. During each stage, complex internal factors such as budgeting, staffing, management, and union contracts; community needs and desires for library service; and elections and political trends at both the local and state level will serve to promote or derail the effort, often simultaneously. This first stage, launching the large-scale planning effort, has taken a great deal of work. It is happening with adequate resources, more or less on the projected schedule. During the actual planning process, the work will occur in a condensed, intense period, with success depending largely on the skill of the consultants and their working relationship with the steering committee. Making the plan effective during the implementation stage will fall to library staff, particularly the administration. We will only be able to judge the impact of Saint Paul's plan some years after completion. The shifting winds of external forces can always serve to make the library stray from its intended direction. Unforeseen technologies, political realignments, changing service needs, and budget woes are not easy to predict. Nonetheless, by the end of 2005, the Saint Paul Public Library will have a functional new chart to steer its course over the next five years. Minor course changes will occur along the way, but through a strategic plan, reaching a set destination can become a reality.
Stu Wilson is Director of Public Awareness & Communications, Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library

The Plan

This article examines the first stage of the Saint Paul Public Library's strategic planning process, identifying the need for a new plan and hiring the consultants to guide the project. Future articles will follow the process through implementation.

St. Paul's Friends

This renewed strategic planning process is also a significant event for the Friends of SPPL. In Saint Paul, the Friends is a professionally staffed, nonprofit organization that provides fundraising, grant-writing, advocacy, public relations, and programming support to the library. A critical part of the relationship is the role the library plays in setting the goals and priorities for the private fundraising efforts conducted by the Friends. The grant-writing, corporate sponsorship, and other fundraising efforts of the Friends require an annual set of priorities and goals determined by the library. These private support efforts benefit from a long-range vision to guide and sustain them. The Friends group also has an active and successful advocacy program. The library's plans and priorities form the basis for the Friends' work to increase public awareness and generate the political support for enhanced public funding. The library's vision statement and strategic plan are critical public documents used by the Friends group in its efforts to secure increased public as well as private dollars. Consequently, the Friends agreed to provide a portion of the approximately $80,000 cost of the planning effort and to assist in securing city support to cover the remaining cost of the plan.
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