• Maribeth Vander Weele

Sink or Swim: Building a Strategic Planning Process for Spending your ARPA Funding

The good news: your agency is flush with American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, ready to be deployed in support of state and local initiatives. The bad news: it’s up to your team to figure out which initiatives to fund, what deployment processes to use, and how you’re going to monitor and report on all of it to the federal government and, eventually, the auditors.


Enter: the strategic planning process.


There are lots of ways to handle strategic planning when it comes to federally funded programs. In this article, we share some tried and true tactics that we employ at the Vander Weele Group. You can use them in their entirety, or as a guide as you build your own process. If the thought of do-it-yourself strategic planning makes you break out in a sweat, you can also contact us for help with technical assistance, monitoring, management, or the entire grant life cycle. We’ll handle the day-to-day so you and your agency can focus on the bigger picture.



Step One: Bring in Your A-Team


Strategic planning requires a range of skill sets and mindsets—innovative thinking, communication, outreach, data analysis, research, budgeting, and meeting facilitation driven by an objective, calm, clear, and independent voice. Moreover, planning for a boatload of new funding takes time. Trying to tackle strategic planning alone is a surefire route to delays, mistakes, burnout, and disgruntled constituents. Building the right team is a critical first step to ensuring success.


As you assemble your strategic planning committee, consider the following:

  • What does success in the planning process look like? What are the desired outcomes?

  • What skill sets will be needed to achieve those outcomes?

  • How many hours, weeks, months, or even years of dedicated resources will it take, not only to plan initiatives but to execute them?

  • Who in your organization brings the relevant skills, knowledge, and expertise to the table (and do they have the bandwidth to contribute in a timely and meaningful way)? Be honest about your team’s limitations and think outside the box—the right person may work outside of your office.

  • What resources are available to strengthen your strategic planning process? Do you need to hire outside help to guide you, or even manage the process? Will temporary employees or interns be necessary to meet capacity needs? Are there training sessions, existing policy documentation, or project templates you can access?


Step Two: Clearly Define Your Processes, Roles, and Responsibilities


Without a plan, too many cooks in the kitchen will spoil the soup (and probably step on each other’s toes in the process). When it comes to strategic planning, it’s crucial that everyone involved understands what’s expected of them, including:

  • areas of responsibility and scope of work

  • budgetary constraints, if applicable

  • timeframes and deadlines

  • any processes, policies, or frameworks that will shape the project

Not only does this prevent duplication of effort, miscommunication, and dropped assignments, it demonstrates respect for individual contributors’ capabilities and builds mutual trust.


As you divide up the planning process, make sure you know:

  • Who will manage the project timeline and its participants?

  • What are the key deadlines associated with the project?

  • Who will solicit, aggregate, analyze, and report stakeholder feedback? And how?

  • How will funding priorities be decided?

  • Who will be responsible for communicating with the public?

  • Who will ensure the project conforms to relevant federal regulations, guidance, and award terms?

  • What tools will be used to organize the project, manage timelines, and hold participants accountable?

  • What policies are needed in conjunction with the strategic plan? Are there existing policies (for example, a conflict-of-interest policy) in place that will serve, or will new policies need to be developed?

  • How frequently and in what way will committee members provide project updates?

  • What safeguards will be needed to protect your team and to get the project back on track in the face of obstacles, delays, changes, and unforeseen events?


Step Three: Know Your Project Parameters


It may seem obvious, but it bears mentioning: before you do anything else, make sure your team knows how much funding is available, where it’s located, and who is responsible for it. There’s no worse time to realize you haven’t been fully briefed on the basics than when you urgently need a question answered or approval for something and have no idea who to ask.


In addition, make sure everyone on the committee is familiar with the relevant legislation, regulations, guidance, and award terms that govern the funds. While not everyone will need to know them in intricate detail, the entire committee should have at least a working knowledge of what’s allowable and what’s available (a lot, when you consider that 96 other pieces of legislation are specifically cited as potential areas of spending in the ARPA bill).


At least one member of your team should be designated as the CARES/ARPA legal subject matter expert. Particularly when it comes to COVID-19 relief funds, guidance issued by various federal agencies can change quickly and without warning. It may even differ or conflict depending on which department you consult. The point person you assign to stay abreast of any legal developments and ensure the project is in compliance with applicable regulations should be organized, proactive, detail-oriented, and ready to communicate important changes and their impacts to the rest of the committee as needed.



Step Four: Pick Your ‘Buckets’, Then Fill Them Up


The flexibility that has been given to state, county, and city agencies concerning the use of ARPA funds can be both a blessing and a curse. When your list of options includes “almost anything”, knowing where to start and how to prioritize the possibilities can be daunting.


We start by brainstorming a list of broad categories that could benefit from additional funding, such as public health, education, the small business sector, human services, transportation, telecommunications, housing, and unemployment. By looking at your categories in conjunction with the available funding streams and the unique slate of programs your agency (or agencies) is responsible for, you can much more easily develop and refine a list of potential initiatives. For example, if you’re part of a county government thinking about healthcare, you might decide that your top priorities are elder care, hospital staffing, and addressing the opioid crisis. Building specific plans to address well-defined projects is significantly easier than trying to plan for any potential options that might arise.



Step Five: Gather Intelligence from Multiple Stakeholders


Sometimes when we’re working on a project, it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. An outside perspective is vital in those situations, and it’s no different when deciding where to allocate ARPA funding. Other agencies, elected officials, professional groups, and individual citizens can provide a wealth of information regarding unmet needs in specific areas or communities. Moreover, as taxpayers—the people for whom COVID relief legislation was passed—it’s important they be involved in the process of deciding how and where the money will be spent.


In our article on navigating political considerations associated with ARPA funding, we talked about engaging elected and appointed officials to help gather, analyze, and prioritize stakeholder input. It’s important enough that it’s worth repeating. What you learn may surprise you and can affect both the direction of your strategic plan and the nature of the programs that grow from it.


THE “WHAT”


What information you collect and how you do so is a decision that should be tailored to your unique situation, whether the “you” is a state agency, county agency, or other organization, such as LEAs.


Some data types to consider include:

  • revenue losses related to the pandemic

  • existing agency or program budgets and strategic plans

  • gaps in public service or care

  • unfunded or underfunded priorities and initiatives previously identified by agency leaders or elected officials

  • national issues relevant to your state, county, or city

  • specific populations with high levels of unmet need

  • any statistical data which can be used to identify trends

You may also find it helpful to review how other agencies around the country are using their funding; you might come across clever ideas that you wouldn’t have considered otherwise.


THE “HOW”:


The possibilities for data collection are endless, and how many you invest in will be up to your discretion. Some of the available avenues include: online and direct mail surveys; webforms; dedicated phone lines, voicemails, or email addresses; interviews; press releases; solicitations in local and regional publications and at community hubs, such as libraries and government offices; reports produced by other agencies or related organizations, such as schools and hospitals, and moderated town hall meetings. Customizable engagement platforms that can be integrated with your existing website are also available to help streamline your fact-finding process.


When soliciting ideas, begin by providing a clear statement about the purpose of the COVID relief funds and an easy-to-understand description of allowable vs. unallowable uses. The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s dedicated COVID-19 resource center is a great place to draw from when crafting this language.


Once elected officials or the governing board have approved a preliminary list of broad areas (those “buckets” we talked about earlier), ask the public to rank the categories in order of importance. Include an “other” category to allow for creative thinking. Within each category, ask respondents to review the lists of possible projects identified by the committee and rank those too—again, with the addition of an “other” option for capturing new ideas.


For example, if addressing pandemic effects on mental health is a priority, possible uses may include funding counseling sessions, supporting community sports, publishing a master database of mental health resources, expanding drug rehabilitation programs, and so forth.


Requesting feedback on specific projects, while giving the public the ability to propose their own, has several advantages:

  • It provides a common language to describe projects, permitting data to be analyzed. If each respondent uses different language, tabulating results will be challenging.

  • By providing examples, it sparks respondents’ imaginations.

  • It ensures that the ideas being considered are allowable under the laws and regulations governing COVID-19 funds.

  • It ensures, by virtue of prior vetting, that any proposed projects are achievable.

Step Six: Analyze Your Data, Then Set Your Goals and Priorities

Once you have your data, it’s time to distill it into actionable intelligence. By providing guided answers, tabulation becomes simple, a matter of identifying the percentage of responses associated with each category and project. One word of caution: it may be wise to give your agency some wiggle room by stating that survey results are only one criterion considered in the final decision-making process. After all, your elected officials or appointed board members were placed there to make informed decisions that the broader public may not have full context for.


Your goals and project priorities should stem naturally from your data analysis. That’s the easy part. The difficult part is determining the best way to achieve your objectives. Some questions to keep in mind as you think about strategy include:

  • What are the budgetary needs and implications of a particular approach?

  • What capacity, technical skills, or knowledge and expertise are required to successfully execute each approach, and how difficult will it be to assemble the required resources?

  • What other programs, projects, or processes may be impacted (changed, deprioritized, improved, etc.) by a particular approach?

  • What is the potential impact of an approach on stakeholders—elected officials, agency leaders, members of the community, etc. What is in the best interest of both the public and the program?

  • How much time does the approach need? Is there a more efficient way to proceed?

Step Seven: Develop Action Plans (and Put Them in Writing)


There’s a saying that if you don’t write something down, it doesn’t truly exist. In our experience, this is especially true of the plans and processes associated with federally funded programs.


Putting together detailed project plans—whether you use an Excel spreadsheet or specialized grants management software—not only keeps your team informed and accountable, but it also minimizes disruptions due to staffing changes and creates a playbook you and your colleagues can use for future projects.



Step Eight: Be Transparent


A purposeful information campaign is a critical component of both the strategic planning process and program execution. To maximize your reach, it’s best to communicate through as many different methods as you can, given time and budget considerations. At a minimum, we recommend:

  • Building a website that may ultimately include:

  • the roadmap for the strategic plan and associated projects

  • related policy documents

  • instructions and avenues for submitting public feedback

  • dates and agendas of public meetings or major committee meetings

  • outcomes and minutes from those meetings

  • progress and financial reports, and/or details of grant awards (to the extent permitted by law)

  • bio and contact information for members of the strategic planning committee and any third-party partners

  • Setting up an email address or phone line to respond to comments and questions.

  • Including major updates in local or regional publications or other distribution channels.

  • Distributing information to community hubs such as libraries, government offices, hospitals, and citizens’ advocacy groups.

  • Sharing updates and information at public committees or regularly scheduled town hall meetings (if it is possible to do so safely).

Transparency, apart from building trust, ensures that stakeholders invested in ARPA-funded projects feel heard and respected. More importantly, it informs policy with intelligence from the front lines about community needs and best practices, one of the most critical components in sound decision making.


COMING UP NEXT: Optimizing Your ARPA Funds Management and Making Monitoring Meaningful: How to Impress Your Auditors and Improve Your Programs