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Ten Important Considerations in Planning a Council Retreat

  1. Should we review and revise our previous plans, or is it time to create a new set of strategic goals for the City?
    Most planning retreats are an extension of previous efforts. A radical shift from the past might be in order if there is a dramatically changed environment (i.e. economic or political); the City has achieved all of its major goals from previous plans; or your community needs a bold vision around which to rally.

  2. Do we stay local or go out of town?
    The trend is shifting toward staying local. A local retreat provides greater access for citizens and the media. It also reduces the perception that the Council is being wasteful or trying to do their business in secret. Many Council members prefer to go home to be with their families rather than stay overnight. Yet, going out of town can be beneficial. You can work longer into the evening, and the opportunity for informal conversations can be helpful in establishing stronger relationships between elected officials and staff.

  3. Do we try to schedule the entire retreat in one day?
    Most of the elected officials we speak with would rather work longer and complete the retreat in a single day. There is a point, however, when the quality of the work suffers by cramming too much into one day. The best approach is to let the amount of work drive the length of the meeting.

  4. Do we invite the senior staff or just have the Council?
    We recommend having senior staff and department heads attend the retreat. We are seeing a trend to encourage active staff participation when discussing the issues rather than using them as a resource for questions. In either case, the Council provides the final direction. Topics which are best discussed without staff present can be built into the agenda.

  5. How do we accommodate the media and citizens?
    The retreat’s location should accommodate media and citizens. Most cities do not allow media and/or citizens to participate or speak during the retreat since no vote will be taken. Make sure you decide how to handle meals and out-of-town accommodations in advance. If the retreat includes overnight stay, remember to set the ground rules for what can’t be discussed in informal conversation.

  6. How much detail should we produce on our goals during the retreat?
    Council sets direction. Staff develops the implementation plans and executes. The Council should set the broad strategic vision, goals, and objectives during the retreat. It is also very helpful for the Council to articulate its priorities and criteria for success for the coming year. After the retreat, staff will develop the work plans to accomplish the goals.

  7. How do we gather input prior to the retreat?
    We prefer to use anonymous surveys about past performance and future goals in every situation. Individual interviews after the completion of surveys are helpful to clarify concerns and uncover important issues for further discussion.

  8. How are the retreat outcomes translated into work plans and budgets?
    This depends on when your retreat is held. Results from retreats held in the fall and winter are incorporated into the next budget cycle. This can mean that a new Council member might be one year into their term before having a meaningful impact on the city’s goals. Holding your retreat in the late spring or early summer provides an opportunity for some new goals to be incorporated into the upcoming budgets and work plans.

  9. Do we use an outside facilitator?
    Our strong bias is yes. It can be difficult for a staff member to communicate difficult messages to elected officials. Asking the City Manager to facilitate removes her/him from the discussion and opens the door for the manager to be accused of running the show. A strong outside facilitator can keep the group on track and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to participate.

  10. What should we look for in an outside facilitator?
    Experience, strong references from other managers, and excellent process skills are the minimum. The facilitator should focus the discussion on the Council and the community – not his/her own agenda. Most important, the facilitator should be able to relate well and adapt their style to the group. Some groups want a more business approach to running the retreat. Others prefer more social activities and games. The right outside facilitator can mean the difference between a frustrating experience and success. It is worth the effort to make sure you are getting someone with whom you can work.

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