At the Jan. 14 Prince William Board of County Supervisors meeting, Kaye Wallace from the county’s Office of Management and Budget presented a proposal for a new strategic planning process. The essence of her proposal was to replace residents appointed by the board chair and supervisors on the next strategic planning team with county staff. That’s a pretty dramatic change.
When Supervisor Pete Candland pressed Wallace to identify deficiencies in the last strategic plan, David Sinclair, the county’s budget director, stepped up to respond. He replied there were no deficiencies. County Executive Christopher Martino agreed and endorsed it as a good product. So, why change the process?
The obvious answer is to move control from county citizens to county government. The current process is driven by citizens; two citizens are appointed by each supervisor, making a total of 16. The county executive also appoints staff to be part of the team.
The proposal changes the point of view from those who live in the county, use its services, commute within and outside the county on its roads, buses and rail, run businesses here and live here, to those who manage those things for us. It changes the conversation from a vision of what could be to a conversation about what is.
If staff leads the strategic planning process, vested interests would drive the conversation. Since the strategic plan, in concert with the comprehensive plan, drives the budget process, there are obvious conflicts of interest.
The residents of Prince William have a very different perspective about what our county should look like than do those who manage its resources. Every strategic planning team brings new ideas and experiences as consumers of county services to the table.
Wallace’s message during the presentation was that replacing board appointees with staff to lead the strategic planning process would somehow increase citizen participation. Past strategic planning teams were open to the public. I was a member of two previous teams. My last allowed citizens time before every meeting to gather community input. Public hearings were held. Leaders from every department within county government presented their issues, concerns and challenges and answered questions from the team.
The one suggestion I embrace from Wallace’s presentation was the need for better publicity so the public knows about the strategic planning team and is encouraged to participate.
My point is that the strategic plan, as approved by the board, (from the county’s website), “reflects the community's vision and desired outcomes. It is an important aspect of Prince William County government's management approach and provides key policy guidance for service delivery and resource allocation decisions.”
I’ll stipulate that county staff does a great job carrying out the direction of the board and keeping the second-largest county in Virginia running smoothly. We take our great roads, parks, police, firefighters, and other amenities for granted. A lot of county employees work very hard to make it so.
However, it’s important that citizens drive the strategic planning process to inform our board on what our county should look like in the future. Staff should support citizens in this endeavor, not drive the process. The exercise should be one of community input, not just confirming what county staff believes.
Those who manage government prefer a well-oiled, efficient machine. Strategic plan team meetings can get “messy.” The results may be inconvenient to the way things are. I don’t mind “inconveniencing” government with new ideas and creative thinking. I am more interested in residents dreaming about what our community will look like in the future.
Al Alborn is a political and social activist in Prince William County. His column appears every other week. You can learn more about Al at www.alborn.net.