Saint Paul’s Strategic Solution

An energetic three-year vision emerges from serious self-examination Strategic planning is a lengthy and significant undertaking, requiring substantial resources and staff time. It is also a process that should touch the heart and soul of an organization and its members. At the Saint Paul Public Library (SPPL), the budget of $80,000, level of staff support, and one-year time frame initially seemed adequate. But there were more blind corners in the strategic planning process, detailed here, than we could have ever expected. Self-criticism and outside assessment is hard to do and hard to take. We could have focused more on service than staffing. We needed more time, and we could have used a bigger budget. Nevertheless, the results show that we were right to move ahead. (For the preliminary planning, see 'Saint Paul's Strategic Plan,' LJ 9/15/05).

Gathering the 'hard' data

With our consultants, PROVIDENCE Associates, Inc., in the lead, we got to work gathering information and analyzing data. This took approximately eight months, from April through November 2005. For the library, this phase involved the lead SPPL administrative team and a 15-member library steering committee, consisting of staff at all levels, including managers, clerks, and representatives from the union, the Friends, and the city's technology services department. Library administrative staff opened their doors to the consultants, providing information on past strategic plans and annual operation reports; the depth and diversity of library collections; patron usage, cumulatively and by location; current staffing and trends; technology systems; budgets and finances; and administrative and organizational structure. The consultants also considered the data and report from an extensive 2004 survey of underserved communities funded through a Library Services and Technology Act grant. Simultaneously, the consultants compiled other relevant data, especially census information broken down by service areas for each of SPPL's facilities, as well as comparative statistics on budgets, staffing, and collections from similarly sized public library systems. They also conducted a phone survey of 400 Saint Paul residents to gauge perceptions of SPPL in such areas as frequency of use, relative importance of different library services, support for the library, and barriers to use. Within SPPL, the bulk of the work in these early months fell on the lead administrative staff: interim library director Kathleen Flynn, administrative services manager Debbie Willms, and library services manager Sue Ellingwood. While it added to their workload, there was general relief that the active phase of the strategic planning process was underway.

Getting community input

To get qualitative insight from our community and patrons, we needed informed but unbiased people from outside the library to conduct both individual and group interviews. PROVIDENCE Associates interviewed a wide range of constituents, including members of the library board and the mayor's office; library staff at all levels, in six groups; Friends' board and staff; key business, community, and philanthropic leaders; and various community groups, representing key demographics. The group interviews yielded great insights. (For detail on a focus group with representatives from diverse communities, see A Focus Group's Feedback.) these interviews with stakeholders, the consultants formulated a more complete picture of the community and the library's role in addressing its needs.

A quality retreat

The quantitative and qualitative data collection phase yielded a massive amount of material on library operations, service needs, community characteristics, technology concerns, funding patterns, and more. From this, the consultants began to form themes and directions for the strategic plan. In November 2005, the entire consultant group and SPPL's planning team met for a two-day retreat to review the information gathered, discuss preliminary ideas, and give voice to final thoughts. Early on, the discussion centered on internal administrative and staffing issues. This proved particularly fruitful because the consultant team brought in a number of library peers, including Luis Herrera, director of San Francisco PL; Toni Garvey, director of Phoenix PL; Melanie Huggins, then head of youth services at Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, NC, and since hired as the new director of SPPL; Donna Nicely, director of Nashville PL; and Gary Strong, currently at UCLA and formerly the director of Queens Borough PL, NY. The interplay and open exchange between Saint Paul's staff and their peers, who face the same problems and challenges in their own libraries, quickly brought most of the major strategic planning issues to the table. Restructuring the administration, streamlining work processes, and redeploying staff were the critical but most difficult topics addressed during the retreat. As interim library director Flynn stated, while the current staff was first-rate and SPPL had accomplished much in the last five years, she was 'looking forward to new staffing and administration models.' Staff agreed that the library was overdue for changes in staffing, management, and organizational culture. Library services manager Ellingwood worried about getting staff buy-in and asked, 'How do you change the culture?' Administrative services manager and head of the planning committee Willms wondered if the system was engaged in too much 'irrelevant excellence.' The issue of the library's internal culture was capped by a comment from Karen Kolb Peterson, director of youth services: 'The fear of not being great keeps us from being good.' The consultants provided many comments addressing these vexing internal issues. Some are included in the final strategic plan, but the consultants saw the need for an internal document to cover key staffing, administrative, and policy recommendations. It was clear that these suggestions would include adding administrative staff, decentralizing and streamlining decision-making, reviewing current policies and procedures, and bolstering internal communications systemwide. After the retreat, the library's administrative team continued discussions of the critical internal issues that had been revealed.

Brainstorming the future

On day two of the retreat, the consultants began to present their thoughts on the plan. Noting that SPPL was reasonably well funded compared with peer libraries, had numerous profound accomplishments and successes to its credit, and was well known for its outreach efforts and service to patrons, they turned to other future objectives. Initial recommendations included needing a new vision for technology, building on the strengths of neighborhood branches and current local partnerships, strengthening and tailoring the collections more closely to the community, and improving both internal and external communications. The consultants also stressed that SPPL should do more to celebrate its successes and move to a more coordinated vision for the library's role in the community. A consensus emerged that SPPL should recommit to being the community leader in providing literacy services to children, particularly in the areas of early childhood development and after-school programs for youth. From this discussion, Herrera offered '4Cs' for consideration: community, collections, children, and communication. These 'C' words ultimately formed the basis for the strategic plan.

The written plan

The first draft of Saint Paul's strategic plan was developed in late 2005, but revisions extended over more than five months. This primarily involved the lead consultants and the core group of administrators on the planning team; however, all members of the planning committee were asked for input and comments. The final documents include many sections and appendixes, such as an executive summary, overview of the current state of public libraries, the library's mission and values statements, strategic initiatives, goals and objectives, role of the library board, demographic statistics, and peer comparisons. Then comes stakeholder interview summaries, telephone survey results, summary of the study of services to the underserved, summary of staff perceptions, and technology assessment and recommendations. The areas requiring particular attention were the sections on strategic initiatives and goals and objectives. It might seem a bit anticlimactic, but the strategic initiatives boiled down to four areas, presented in less than two pages of text:
  1. Commitment to Community The plan reaffirms SPPL's longstanding commitment to enriching the quality of life for residents by anticipating the community's need for information, facilitating lifelong learning, nurturing a love of reading in youth, and providing all formats of materials and means of access to meet the interests of Saint Paul's diverse community.
  2. Children and Youth The library's role in supporting both emergent and progressive literacy of young children and youth was defined as a top priority in the three-year plan. The library committed to strengthening and enhancing its services, resources, and community collaborations to promote early childhood literacy, engage youth in constructive after-school activities, and support student success in school.
  3. Community Collaboration The plan recognized the significant and extensive work the library has already achieved in partnering with literacy organizations, colleges and universities, and cultural institutions. The plan calls for the library to continue to build on this and seek out additional collaborations, particularly with other city departments, K - 12 schools, and cultural organizations.
  4. Communication In addition to standard public relations and marketing efforts, the communication initiative calls for refocusing the operation of the SPPL to improve information flow, resolve internal challenges, and create open dialogs within the library, with the library board, and with the community.
Riffing on these four primary strategic initiatives, the planning documents outline numerous goals, with detailed objectives and tactics for each initiative. These strategic initiatives, goals, and objectives constitute the library's action plan for the coming three years. (For a copy of the plan, contact Debbie Willms at 651/266-7085 or by email at After finalizing the plan with the planning committee and library administration, the document moved to the library board and mayor for approval. At this point, the overall direction for the library was clear, and many of the specific objectives and strategies were underway well before final approval.

Bumps and bruises

The strategic planning process has stretched over more than two years from the first steps to having a plan in hand. During that time, SPPL faced numerous unexpected hurdles. Foremost were the resignation of the library director early in the process and a mayoral election. The decision to move forward with the planning process without a permanent director was relatively easy to make, since the funding was in place to support the process in FY05 and the interim director and other lead administrative staff were very experienced. Nonetheless, since the new director might bring new visions to the library, the decision was made to restructure the new plan as a three-year, rather than five-year, project. Director Huggins joined the library with a purposeful plan in place but with the flexibility to shift course if needed. The election took its toll primarily on the time frame. Former mayor Randy Kelly was supportive of the library and the planning process, and new mayor Chris Coleman has proved equally so. However, the fall 2005 campaign slowed down the directions, visions, and final decisions - including the appointment of the new director - emanating from the mayor's office. A third, more predictable bump was the meshing of SPPL's process with strategic planning by the Friends of SPPL, which operates as the foundation and advocacy organization for the library. The Friends conducted its own strategic planning retreat in the summer of 2005 and was waiting for the results of the library's strategic planning process and the expected need for increased public and private funding to help define specific capital campaign goals. The delays in the library's process added a few months to the Friend's plans for active fundraising and advocacy. Then there was the relationship between the consultant group and planning team. In an extended dance like this, it is only natural that some toes get stepped on. Staying on schedule proved impossible. This was complicated on the library's side by the unusual circumstances outlined above, but there were also difficulties for the consultant group. Pulling together input from multiple members of their team, getting responses from all of the members of the library's planning committee, and then providing a complete draft of the plan took longer than expected, too. This in turn led staff to question the efficacy of the resulting plan. A more generous and realistic time frame, by both the library and consultant group, would have improved the process.

A hard look in the mirror

Getting constructive criticism proved to be the most difficult part of the operation. Strategic planning is about examining the organization and setting forth realistic, achievable new goals and visions. A vital part of that is having others take a keen-eyed, informed look at the library, assess its successes and failures, and offer new perspectives. Both the library and consultants need to be willing partners and have an agreed-upon method in which a positive, open, collegial critique can result. In Saint Paul, neither the consultant group nor the library was fully prepared for this delicate aspect of the relationship. Some library staff felt barraged by the list of recommendations for internal restructuring, while simultaneously recognizing that many of the suggested changes were appropriate and necessary. The critique might have been improved with more focus on external, future-oriented service issues as well as on the internal challenges. The consultant group could also rework how it presents these important issues and provide more time for discussion. The library could commit more time to providing additional management of the process by lead library staff.

The stars aligned

Still, the library's intense self-examination allowed SPPL to explore every nook and cranny of the organization, question assumptions, and not only plan for changes but begin to implement them even before the process was complete. From policies concerning holds and shelving of paperbacks to administrative structures and communication strategies, the operation itself worked to move the library in meaningful new directions. The planning has also allowed library staff to spend extensive time working with respected peers from other library systems and jointly examine internal issues and solutions. Despite some hard lessons, with the strategic plan in hand, SPPL is poised to make its next great leap forward. The creation of the plan has already spurred change, and the plan itself now lays out an energetic vision and three-year course for the library. Implementation of the objectives will be daunting, but the new mayor's focus on after-school programs and the new director's vitality signal the next three years will be a period of prosperity and growth for the SPPL. Challenges lie ahead, including a projected city budget shortfall in 2007, largely owing to cutbacks by the State of Minnesota in city funding. However, this news is moderated by a positive stance from the mayor and the board, which is examining the possibility of future library tax levy increases to stabilize, or even potentially expand, the library's budget. Also, the Friends of SPPL has begun a feasibility study for a new capital campaign, projected to raise approximately $6 - $10 million. This fundraising effort will be directly tied to library needs defined in the strategic plan. The stars appear to be aligning for SPPL's jump to a new level of community service. With the strategic plan in place, the library now has the chart to direct its course to an exciting future.
Stu Wilson is Director of Development & Communications, Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library

The plan

The first article in this series, 'Saint Paul's Strategic Plan' (LJ 9/15/05), documented how the Saint Paul Public Library (SPPL) created a strategic planning process, up to the point of hiring the planning consultant PROVIDENCE Associates, Inc. This article details the process phases, including data gathering and drafting the plan itself. A future article, focusing on implementation of the adopted plan, will provide insight into the long-term value of strategic planning at SPPL.
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