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Iowa City “Thinks Big” in New 5-Year Strategic Plan

Last year, the City of Iowa City’s leaders realized that rapidly changing economic and social conditions demanded a more rigorous approach to strategic planning. The previous two-year plan was due for replacement, so the city engaged ECICOG to assist with development of a five-year strategic plan that expands on the City's longtime efforts to foster a more inclusive, just, and sustainable Iowa City. “Moving from a two-year to a five-year horizon gave the City Council permission to think in a bigger way,” said City Manager Geoff Fruin. “Instead of a short-term, task-oriented document, we now have a document that paints a clear picture of the desired future.”

To gain an understanding of the city’s collective needs and aspirations, ECICOG conducted one-on-one interviews with City Council members, brainstorming sessions with Council and department heads, and an exercise in identifying the city’s future priorities. Participants then turned their focus to analyzing the city’s external opportunities and threats, followed by a collaborative undertaking to establish a long-term vision and overarching strategies. Finally, they outlined specific courses of action to take during the implementation phase.

ECICOG configured these processes to address the many unprecedented challenges for municipalities in the 2020s. Assistant City Manager Rachel Kilburg said the Iowa City of 2022 needed a new framework for dealing with unpredictable disruptions. “Our City Council was tasked with coming up with a plan to guide our community forward in the midst of what felt like impossible circumstances: continued recovery from a global pandemic, a volatile economy, a rapidly growing community and increasing service demands, mounting pressure for bold climate action — the list could go on,” Kilburg said. “ECICOG helped us wrap our arms around these challenges, see how our unique strengths and opportunities could be leveraged to address them, and came up with a meaningful, actionable plan everyone felt good about.”

Another driver of the plan, Council Member Laura Bergus, agreed that complicated times demanded bigger thinking with a longer view. “Knowing that we were tackling a lot, having a short time horizon didn’t make a lot of sense,” she said, adding that ECICOG Executive Director Karen Kurt was the key to developing a document that was both thorough and focused. “Having a facilitated process with someone like Karen helped us to be really effective in the planning process.” Bergus said. “It was tremendously cost-effective for us.” Bergus said the new document connects big ideas with practical reality. “As a policy maker, for every single decision I could look at — for instance, for something involving mobility in our community — I can anchor myself and my thought process and my decision-making in this vision,” she added.

Both the plan’s attention to values and the useful guidance it provides make it an indispensable reference for the day-to-day management of the city, according to Assistant City Manager Kilburg. “Now that we have such a clear plan with our priorities and values so well-defined, our employees and elected officials feel more in-sync about how we progress towards a future we’re all proud of.”

City Manager Fruin is looking forward to using this blueprint as a guide for city management because it provides a foundation for successful decision-making. “Confidence comes with having clear values and visions,” Fruin said. “Over the course of time, we know the path toward those visions might change. However, we also know if we are true to our values that a change in the path will not deter us from reaching the destination.”

While Iowa City’s planning process reflected the complexity and size of its organization, ECICOG staff have a variety of planning and facilitation tools that can be adapted to any size of organization. Contact Executive Director Karen Kurt at for more information on strategic planning and council goal-setting.


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