Engaging the Community in Strategic Visioning

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Author Note

Mike Mowery, Leadership Development and Training, Strategic Government Resources.

Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to Mike Mowery, President, Leadership Development and Training, Strategic Government Resources. Phone: (817) 223-7320. E-mail: mmowery@governmentresource.com


Local government leaders seek to engage residents and stakeholders as they plan for the future. However, these leaders often struggle to find ways to elicit positive and helpful information from community members. Oftentimes, they fear that open meetings will become a venue for negative-minded people to voice their unhappy feelings. This article describes a way to engage the community in helping to develop a strategic vision for the future which guards against this kind of negativity. This approach opens the ways for stakeholders to have civil discussions about strategic decisions that a municipality faces. While allowing for large numbers of people to offer input, the process provides a governing body with “ingredients” they can use in crafting a shared vision.

Strategic Government Resources (SGR) has developed a tool that we call the Cycle of Strategic Visioning, and it is built around our belief that there is a difference between a strategic vision and a strategic plan. A strategic vision answers the question, “Where are we going?” A strategic plan answers the question, “How do we get there?” It is mainly a governing body’s responsibility to develop its strategic vision, while it is primarily the organizational staff’s responsibility to develop a strategic plan that aligns with the strategic vision. The vision must precede and “govern” the plan; however, the group responsible for developing the vision must first receive quality input from stakeholders. Said another way, the governing body may bake the cake, but the stakeholders must provide the ingredients. All local government leaders seek input from residents and stakeholders in order to know how to more effectively serve their constituents. I have led hundreds of workshops for elected officials and local government leaders, and not one time has anyone said, “We don’t care what citizens say.” As a chief of police once said to me, “We govern by the consent of the governed.” This, then, raises the question, “How can local governments receive input in a meaningful way so that they are creating a vision that will resonate with community, both residents and other stakeholders?” This article discusses one way that SGR has found to be very effective in engaging citizens and stakeholders in the process of creating a strategic vision.

Citizen surveys can be useful tools for receiving input, but when they are the only mechanism used to gather community feedback, citizens can feel that their input is being limited and therefore undervalued. Not only do citizens want to give more, but leaders need them to give more. Surveys cannot create the synergy needed to develop a shared vision, and both citizens and governing bodies sense that more is needed. Though constructive meetings with stakeholders are essential, many leaders fear that animosities will get stirred up in open meetings. This is an understandable concern, especially at a time when we, as a society, seem to be bitterly divided about almost everything. No one wants to host a meeting that is dominated by divisiveness. The problem is that, often, government leaders’ concept of a community meeting centers on one-way communication. That is, we format meetings so that we share information with constituents and they respond, or, similarly, constituents voice their opinions about volatile topics while leaders merely listen. The problem with the latter format is that it easily drifts toward angry speeches instead of helpful solutions. Many times, constituents speak about issues that are not related to the strategic questions that must be addressed in order to develop a shared vision of the future. Local governments need an approach that creates dialogue among a cross-section of the community which reflects the community’s diversity. Cities must find ways for elected leaders to listen respectfully to people without surrendering the agenda to negative-minded parties. We must ask the question, “How can elected officials create a strategic vision that relies upon the contributions, rather than complaints, of the community?”

Authentic Collaboration

One option is to engage community members at the beginning of the strategic visioning process, allowing them to contribute key ingredients to the vision. This process sends the message that, while having no vision is not an option, elected leaders also do not consider it an option to create a vision apart from citizen input. Relying upon residents to contribute substantively to the vision is critical, but it requires local government leaders to carefully communicate that the purpose of providing input is to look forward together, not to complain about what someone does not like or about what someone else is doing wrong. It is for the purpose of working together toward a shared vision that everyone creates collaboratively.

This is very different from the traditional process of a small group of leaders creating a vision and then “selling” it to the larger group, nor is it the same as developing a vision and testing it with a focus group. Rather, this process is designed to promote genuine collaboration with all residents so that the finished project feels for the participants like they are looking into a mirror. Ideally, when a city council creates a strategic vision, those who have participated in the process should be able to see themselves in that vision. They should see some of their own aspirations, preferences, and insights. Indeed, their “fingerprints” should be all over it. If someone who has participated in the process looks at a strategic vision and cannot see any of their own hopes in it, then that represents a colossal failure.

Creating a collaborative process that engages the community in strategic visioning is an important expression of servant leadership. The desire to serve motivates many to run for a council seat or to work in local government. I often hear both elected officials and local government professionals say that they want to make a difference. Citizens appreciate that attitude, but it is easy for the average citizen to feel disconnected from what is happening in local government. Many do not know how to engage with decision makers, and often they are not familiar with the strategic issues that city governments are contemplating. While it may be tempting to say, “They should become informed,” it is also incumbent upon servant leaders to provide an effective way for citizens to become informed and get involved.

Servant leaders attempt to lead in a way that allows everyone to feel included in the community. Their sense of stewardship goes beyond giving a report and practicing transparency, as important as these responsibilities are. When the organizational culture is marked by servant leadership principles, the leaders feel an obligation to activate the gifts, knowledge, and dreams of the widest possible segment of the population. In addition, they have the foresight and awareness to appreciate the positive impact of engaging the community and the negative impact of not. In short, good community engagement is not an option; it is a necessity for great servant leaders.

When a large number of residents know they have played a significant role in developing their city’s strategic vision, it creates a deeper sense of community ownership. They are more likely to embrace and defend the vision if they have participated in the process. I have listened to many city councils discuss creative ways to market their vision to residents. However, these marketing efforts always have severe limitations: They must overcome people’s natural skepticism; many people have a persistent desire to resist change that they feel the government is trying to convince them to accept; and they are also reticent to easily agree to conditions that they may not fully understand. A better way to gain support is to develop a process that builds people’s sense of ownership because they have actually collaborated with formal leaders in developing the vision.

Fostering a process that builds community ownership has some very practical benefits. It is much easier to educate citizens about difficult and complicated social issues when they are engaged in addressing the problems rather than merely critiquing the solutions. This is a crucial part of countering what in many communities has become a chorus of negativity on social media platforms about local government decisions and activities. That negative refrain is often driven by a tendency to perceive complex issues as being one-dimensional. One effective way to counter this perception is to educate a large segment of the population on the issue, not through staff reports, but by working to solve the problems together with the city’s formal leaders. These citizens become the raving fans that offer a different perspective because they have seen for themselves how complex issues can be. They champion community-building virtues, such as empathy and inclusion, because they have had the experience of listening to a variety of viewpoints in an effort to determine the best way forward.

A vision can be defined as a preferred future that inspires commitment and elicits excitement. The benefit of engaging citizens in a strategic visioning process is that the very nature of a vision appeals to the positive aspects of their personalities, and it makes them excited about their city’s future possibilities. Visions are aspirational. People do not create visions of gloom for a city they love and to which they feel connected. However, it is much easier to create a sense of community ownership around an aspirational vision if residents have had a key role in determining what that vision should be. If they are asked to merely consent to what has already been created, they are as likely to resent as consent.

There are other practical benefits to using an approach marked by authentic collaboration. One benefit is that the more residents who participate in the process, the more likely it is that the city council members will hear ideas they may not have considered on their own. Some of those ideas will relate to the need to address systemic injustices. Other ideas will focus on ways to alleviate the suffering caused by inequities. Both are necessary, and the city can create a more compelling vision of the future by drawing upon the wisdom of “both/and” thinking instead of the limitations of an “either/or” orientation. As the saying goes, “We is always smarter than me.”

Another benefit of a process built upon authentic collaboration is the increased likelihood of voter support for bond campaigns. Cities like Gladstone, Missouri, and Plano, Texas, have illustrated the connection between participation in the strategic visioning process and success at the ballot box. Gladstone has developed a comprehensive strategic planning process that the city has used for almost a decade. It involves a significant number of citizens participating in several cycles that have resulted in people seeing their dreams become tangible realities. It has also led to voters approving bond measures by overwhelming majorities. Similarly, in the early 1960s, Plano was a small city of approximately 10,000 people which desperately needed to add infrastructure to prepare for the inevitable growth moving toward them from Dallas. The City of Plano adopted the strategy of always having more people on its Bond Committee and sub-committees than would be required to successfully pass each bond election. City leaders knew that participation created a sense of ownership: People tended to vote for certain measures because they felt a sense of ownership in them.

A Genuinely Collaborative Process

This shared visioning process can be adapted to fit the needs of different cities. In this article, I reference how the City of Shawnee, Kansas, used this approach to help the city council develop a strategic vision. Shawnee is a thriving suburb in the Kansas City metro area, with a growing population of over 50,000 and a desire to balance growth and economic development while continuing to protect the quality of life for residents. While citizen satisfaction surveys have shown a high level of satisfaction with the local government, the council was also aware of a wide diversity of opinions about what the future should look like for the city. This led the council to select SGR to help guide members through the strategic visioning process, with heavy emphasis placed upon community engagement.

Community Steering Committee

With the Shawnee City Council’s approval, the management team created a steering committee that comprised a few council members and a cross-section of leaders from various stakeholder groups, including business leaders, educational leaders, members of commissions, and other volunteers. Approximately 15 people served on the steering committee, the purpose of which was four-fold:

  • provide oversight to the process;
  • champion the process among members’ various constituencies;
  • participate in community engagement meetings and focus group meetings; and,
  • help synthesize the results of the community engagement meetings and focus group meetings.

During the steering committee training meeting, this group began to coalesce around the idea of creating a process that would allow citizens to discuss—thoughtfully, thoroughly, and civilly—pressing issues facing the city. The steering committee chose a theme for the process— “Imagine Shawnee”—and created its own statement of purpose: “To imagine a shared vision for Shawnee’s future.” The committee members hired a graphic designer to create a logo for the group which was used on T-shirts, signs, social media, and all communications from the committee about the process.

SGR worked with the steering committee to create the questions that would be explored at the community engagement events and held some mini-sessions that followed the blueprint for the meetings with the community. The committee decided to name these meetings “Imagine Shawnee Meetings,” though not everyone was confident that this title would be effective. Several committee members worried that the discussions would devolve into negative accusations and angry outbursts. However, the committee agreed that attempting to create a strategic vision without gaining real community input would not work, either. Therefore, the committee planned four Imagine Shawnee Meetings that would be open to anyone. In addition, the committee members planned to hold several focus group events that would allow specific groups to offer input from their particular perspective. The focus groups included senior adults, educators, downtown businesses, teenagers, and chamber of commerce members.

Steering committee members took the initiative to personally invite people they knew and interacted with on a regular basis. In addition, the city made use of social media and newspaper announcements to advertise the meetings. The steering committee suggested holding the Imagine Shawnee Meetings at different locations in the city, rather than hosting all of them at city hall. One meeting was held at a park, one at a tavern, and others in places that could accommodate groups of at least 50 people. Over 600 different people attended the Imagine Shawnee Meetings or focus group meetings. Shawnee City Manager Nolan Sunderman noted that the vast majority of the 600 had not participated in any kind of city governance event in the past. They had never been to a council meeting, nor had they ever previously attended city-sponsored informational meeting of any kind.

The decision to hold the Imagine Shawnee Meetings away from city hall was a successful strategic move by the steering committee. Many residents do not feel like city hall belongs to them, even though elected officials and city employees would argue that it does indeed. For many citizens, events held at city hall make them feel like they are “playing on the road.” They are visitors in unfamiliar territory. This can undermine the sense of community ownership in the vision that the leaders wanted originally to create. Holding the meetings in other locations was a way for formal leaders to say that they were giving up “home field advantage.” Making themselves accessible on others’ turf, without a fixed agenda, tempered people’s skepticism and increased their willingness to engage. It made it easier for people to see that the vision for the city’s future included all aspects of the community, not just formal city government.

Effective Engagement

The steering committee created a series of open-ended questions that people could wrestle with in small groups. The steering committee used small-group discussions rather than allowing individuals to address the entire group. SGR has found that most people do not like to speak “to the front of the room” unless they are true extroverts or terribly angry. Additionally, these individuals often overestimate the number of people who agree with them, and because they are so forceful, they often discourage others from expressing their points of view.

The steering committee decided to present one or two questions at a time to be discussed in the small groups, which were usually made up of approximately six to 10 people. The groups were given 10 to 15 minutes to discuss their answers, and then one person was asked to summarize to the large group how their small group had answered the questions. Though this would seemingly have created the same dynamic as asking a person to give a speech into a microphone, there were some important distinctions. First, we asked individual speakers to summarize what the group said, not just give their opinion about a matter. We have found this to be effective because there is usually enough invisible peer pressure to keep most people from going “off script.” The presence of the group holds the spokesperson accountable to what was actually said. However, another subtle reality is that the person with an axe to grind rarely volunteers to be the spokesperson. As they gave their summaries, the spokespeople wrote down the key points on a flip chart. At times, the facilitator would ask for come clarification, and some group comments were not uncommon at the end of each small-group report, but the facilitator was careful to keep things moving.

Each time we introduced a new set of questions, we re-formed the groups so that people were able to interact with a variety of other participants throughout the meeting. Not only does this build community by creating new relationships, but it also helps minimize negativity. Unless someone is very bold, people tend to practice more self-restraint when they are in a group with others they are just getting to know. With their best friends, they may be unrestrained, but in a group of strangers, they usually tone down their rhetoric. However, that is just one outcome of small-group meetings; we have frequently observed several results associated with this process:

  1. Good ideas keep coming to the forefront over and over. It is easy for the entire group to see themes as they emerge.
  2. Outliers tend to self-identify as outliers. I have noticed that when a person who thinks initially that everyone agrees with them on controversial issues begins interacting with other community members, they usually discover, much to their surprise, that not everyone feels the same way about these topics. This becomes apparent not only to the outlier, but also to everyone else. Extremely vocal people can create a mirage suggesting that the whole city is “up in arms” about this or that. However, when the issue is discussed in a less passionate, more civil manner, it often becomes clear that this is not the case.
  3. New voices are discovered and new relationships are built. Over and over, I have watched as people connect with each other, enthusiasm swells, and the city discovers new leaders as a result of a 2-hour meeting. The value of focusing collectively on solutions rather than complaints cannot be overstated. It creates positive bonds.
  4. Respect for leadership goes up, not down. Sometimes, leaders do not want to have meetings like this because they do not want to be attacked by people who do not agree with past decisions or new directions. I understand this resistance, and I do not blame them at all for it. However, I have noticed that when citizens start wrestling with strategic questions, they realize that doing so is difficult work. While this is not a reason to have a community engagement event, it is a positive byproduct nevertheless.

All of these things happened in Shawnee. By the time all of the Imagine Shawnee Meetings had been held, it was easy to discern what citizens were asking for, and there was a genuine excitement within the steering committee that they were going to have useful information to share with the city council. It is likely that the sense of community ownership that grew out of the process will result in more leaders volunteering to serve in the future. Not only can more volunteers be expected, they will likely volunteer with a positive attitude because of the goodwill created from the Imagine Shawnee Meetings.

Questions Used

The questions used during a community engagement meeting must address the specific needs of each unique situation, but in order to be most effective, they should meet three criteria. First, they should be open-ended (i.e., not yes-or-no questions). Second, they should be aspirational. Third, they should be strategic in that they focus on the bigger issues facing the community. The following are the questions used during the Imagine Shawnee Meetings:

  1. Why did you move to Shawnee?
  2. What do you like the most about living in Shawnee?
  3. What’s one thing you would like to change about Shawnee?
  4. What’s one thing you hope stays the same about Shawnee?
  5. What are the strengths of Shawnee that you can build on for the future?
  6. What are the weaknesses of Shawnee that should be addressed for the future?
  7. What are the opportunities Shawnee can take advantage of in the future? What are the threats to the future that Shawnee should prepare for?
  8. What most needs to be added (or improved) in the City of Shawnee?
  9. Where would you like your city council to focus its future efforts?

Helpful Guidelines

If you are planning to hold a community engagement process as a part of creating a strategic vision, the following are some helpful guidelines:

  1. Use an outside facilitator. The facilitator should keep things positive and upbeat, but there may be times when they have to interrupt people as politely as possible. Most of the time, this can be done without offending people, but if people do get offended, it is better for them to get angry at a facilitator than at the mayor, city manager, or other city leader.
  2. Do not be defensive. Ninety-five percent of what will be said during a community engagement meeting will be positive, but there is always the possibility that someone will make a remark that is out of place or downright rude. As unfair as it seems, it is better to allow the facilitator to simply say “Thank you” and move on, rather than taking time to “set the record straight.”
  3. Do not campaign. Nothing can ruin a community engagement event faster than an elected official who starts making campaign promises. We have asked people to come to give their opinions about the future, so it is important that we let them do that. No bait and switch.
  4. Do not overreact. It is important to keep the purpose of the engagement event in focus: to hear from the community about what they want for the future. If the meeting generates some great ideas and some common themes, then it is a success. In the process, there will be some things that may not sit well with leaders who are heavily invested in the community or the process. It is easy to overreact to those things. However, my experience is that the best response, including after the meeting is over, is to merely move on.
  5. Do not label people. Just because citizens have ideas that may carry notes of criticism does not automatically make them negative people. Great leadership is always focused on building a coalition of the willing. Give every person every opportunity to be a part of that coalition until they make it clear they are unwilling. Being too hasty to label someone runs the risk of making them a martyr, and it sends distancing signals to perceptive observers.


After we conducted all of the community engagement and focus group events, SGR met with the steering committee again to collaborate on synthesizing the results. Our three goals were to categorize the responses, identify the main themes, and present them to the city council in a way that made it easy to see which ideas were mentioned the most often. We also tried to present conflicting points of view in an honest way so that the council could see what the outlier opinions were.

The steering committee’s role is very important at this point. If you use an outside facilitator, they may not be as familiar with the nuances of your local situation, but the steering committee will be able to interpret the data in light of your city’s unique setting. The facilitator needs access to the raw data even though they may be creating the initial report. This is important because, if the facilitator inadvertently under- or over-emphasizes something, the steering committee is likely to spot the discrepancy if it can compare the report with the raw data. Ideally, the steering committee and the facilitator work together as a team.

Once the steering committee collaborated with the facilitator to create the report, that report was shared with the full governing body. It is helpful if one or two members of the governing body have served on the steering committee, but it is also important for the steering committee membership not to be overrepresented by elected officials. It is important to note that the report is not the strategic vision and is not meant to replace the work that the governing body must do in developing a good strategic vision. Rather, it is one data point for the governing body to consider when they begin their work, but it is an important element that can serve as a “north star” for the work they do on the strategic vision.

When the report is shared with the governing body, it is important that it comes from the steering committee, rather than the city management team. It is likely that residents will attend the meeting at which the report is presented, and if they attended one of the engagement events, their perspective on how much one item ought to be emphasized can be unduly influenced by what they heard at that particular meeting. If the report is perceived to be coming from the management team, it places the city in an awkward position. However, if it is clear that the report comes from the steering committee, even though a citizen may not agree with how the report is worded or what it emphasizes, it leaves the management team out of the argument. Also important, the steering committee is not making any recommendations to the governing body; the report simply highlights what was said at the community engagement and focus group meetings. The elected officials are free to consider some, none, or all of what is submitted.

When the Imagine Shawnee Steering Committee presented its report to the city council, the council members asked a few questions and suggested a minor change to the planned process. The suggestion was to have another community engagement event after the council had created the strategic vision but before it had been formally adopted. The goal was to ensure that citizens had every opportunity to say, “Yes, that’s in alignment with what we want.” The steering committee agreed and scheduled those meetings after the council had completed its work.

Closing Observations

This process worked very well for the City of Shawnee. It gave citizens a clear opportunity to speak about the future, and it provided the council members with the ingredients they needed to develop a shared vision. A similar process may be helpful for other cities as well. While this kind of approach has many positive attributes, it is important to manage expectations. The city must be crystal clear about what the community engagement events are and what they are not. The parameters and purposes must be stated simply, clearly, and repeatedly. There is not a way for the council to escape making hard decisions about priorities, budgets, or directions. Citizens should be told clearly that, just because they suggest something, there is no guarantee their suggestion will become a part of the strategic vision. There are many factors to consider beyond community input, though the latter is important. Everyone should be aware of the reality that this process will have some messy elements. Some people will say things that would have been best left unsaid. A few people will have some criticisms, some of which will be valid. However, providing healthy leadership requires a certain level of maturity, and volunteers, city employees, and elected officials have to display their maturity, especially when they feel justified having a less mature response.

Jennifer Fadden, president of executive recruitment at SGR, often says, “People support what they have helped to create.” That is the most important reason to develop a robust approach to community engagement. As the city council creates the strategic vision for the future and the management team develops the strategic plan to make it become a reality, both groups will need the support of the residents and stakeholders. By going back and saying, “This is in alignment with what the community told us,” you can dramatically increase the chances of having a long walk in the same direction, and it is most often the cities that have a long walk in the same direction that also have the most success.


Dr. Mike Mowery is the President of Leadership Development for Strategic Government Resources (SGR).  He has been with SGR since 2011.   

 Mike has studied leadership for over 30 years and is experienced in guiding local governments in strategic visioning, building effective teams, and overcoming obstacles to improve and enhance organizational health. He has led over 500 Workshops on Leadership for local governments. 

He is a graduate of Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. His doctoral project focused on developing a process to help leaders create a strategic vision for a larger organization. This has become the foundation for SGR’s approach to Strategic Planning which is being used by more and more City Councils. 

 Mike is the creator and presenter of SGR’s Next Generation Leader training program and leads other workshops and classes including Building Better Leaders, Building the Great Workplace, and Overcoming the 5 Dysfunctions of a Team. Mike has helped develop and redefine SGR’s Strategic Visioning Process used in city council retreats around the nation. He was also one of the developers for SGR’s Mentoring Program, used to help emerging leaders reach their potential. 

Mike has a passion for seeing leaders grow, excel, and provide outstanding leadership to their organizations. In addition to having earned several certifications in facilitation methods, he is in the process of becoming a certified coach with the International Coaches Federation.