The town of Amherst is located in the southern tier of New Hampshire in Hillsborough County on the western edge of the Merrimack Valley and the eastern edge of the Monadnock region. With a population of approximately 12,000 residents and a land area of nearly 35 square miles, Amherst is a growing suburban-rural community that has successfully maintained many desirable historic and rural characteristics.
Prior to adopting strategic governance in 2013, Amherst’s town government had endured three default budgets in five years. This was, in part, due to:
In 2013, the selectmen embraced the idea of strategic governance, which was introduced to the town by selectman, Mike Akillian. Following a clearly prescribed process, town departments (Fire, Police, EMS, DPW, Community Development, Recreation, Town Clerk, Town Offices (administrator, Tax, Finance) along with the public library developed strategic plans by completing the 10 work activities in just four months (May-August). They have also used these plans to underpin their annual operating plans and budgets for each year since then.
The changes in town governance and in citizen support have been significant:
Department heads, selectmen, and the town administrator used strategic governance as the basis for multi-year initiatives, operational plans, and budgets. In public meetings, they used real-time tools to debate and clarify trade-offs and impacts of various strategic scenarios for taxpayers. They also communicated and engaged with a wide array of residents and groups across Amherst so that everyone understood the process, the reasons for it, and the rationale for goal setting and decision making.
Most important, government officials began measuring and reporting on progress towards all goals, which are stated as citizen-oriented outcomes, so that residents can clearly see how they benefit from initiatives and investments.
In each subsequent year, all plans have been refreshed in late spring to account for changes either within Amherst or those likely to impact the town from outside. Refreshed plans are presented annually to the selectmen, who use these plans as the basis for their annual operational planning and budgeting and for explaining to residents their intent and the elements that comprise the proposed budget. Department heads are now quite self sufficient in managing their strategic thinking and in presenting publicly. (Amherst strategic plans can be found at http://www.amherstnh.gov/board-selectmen/pages/strategic-planning-budget-process.)
The strategic plans of the various town departments reflect the vertical perspectives of functional groups into which town government is organized to do work. But there are broader, more horizontal, categories that, together, shape the quality of life for Amherst residents. The Board of Selectmen has framed what they believe to be the broader strategic priorities of the town that they also use as the basis for their decision making. These include:
As part of this process, department heads created 10 work products that, together, helped them understand past demands on their departments, upcoming trends and impacts, and ways to anticipate and meet future demands. These included:
“Strategic Governance has enabled town department heads, selectmen, and residents to engage together to identify the most important town priorities, and make sure that our spending and our efforts are in line with our priorities over the near and long term. It has been an excellent process for all of us."
Board of Selectmen
“Strategic governance enables us, as town officials, to provide citizens with a clear window into what we do –- and the reasons behind our decisions, actions, and recommendations. It fosters strong communications and helps align everyone’s expectations regarding the changing needs of the town and the services we deliver. It helps all of us make better, timely decisions. For many of us, this was a new experience. But, because the process is repeated annually, we didn’t feel we had to be perfect the first time. Rather, we could continually improve the process and results every year. And, that’s what’s happened. Today, we have clear, specific, measurable outcomes we’re aiming for, and most are stated in terms of benefits to our residents.”
Former Town Administrator
“Strategic governance has brought transparency to how the Board of Selectmen, the Town of Amherst, and its departments operate. These well thought-out plans put everything out in the open and show that the selectmen and the department heads are being fiscally responsible with tax-payer dollars."
“The Department of Public Works has the largest budget in Amherst town government. Besides managing our own facilities, equipment, and systems, we manage town roads, bridges, buildings, lighting, solid waste, and storm water –- all of which require complex planning, trade-offs, and financing.
"It’s always been a challenge to convey these complexities to residents. Using citizen-focused outcomes for our strategic thinking has really helped us communicate more clearly what we propose to do and why. Since there’s never enough money to do everything, this has enabled us to engage and align with residents through timely, well-considered trade-offs.”
“Over the past several years, I’ve found it easier to prepare and present with confidence a five-year forecasted plan and budget including measurable goals to the Board of Selectmen and voters. This has helped us maintain consistently high tax collection rates and offer more services at little or no added cost. Ongoing voter support of our town government is due in large part to our thinking and acting strategically -- a process I believe all communities could benefit from.”
“Strategic governance has created structural uniformity among departments in their budget preparation -- assuring an informative, transparent, and effective means for BOS prioritization across a broad spectrum of initiatives. It provides an historical backdrop and explanation for department requests from year to year, drastically increasing community awareness and understanding."
Chief of Police
“The Recreation Department enhances the quality of life for all Amherst residents –- from under 8 to over 80 –- with high-quality programming in health, leisure, fitness, and outdoor education. By thinking strategically about our programs, parks, and recreational facilities, we’ve created a diversified mix of offerings for everyone.
"This has increased program participation from 3,119 three years ago to 4,287 this year; our five-year goal is to raise that to 6,000 per year. We have laid out our plans and initiatives, and they have been strongly endorsed by the voters, who share these values and goals.”