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Remember family vacations? If yours were like ours, you and your siblings sat in the back seat of the car and periodically whined the universal utterance heard on family vacations certain to set the parents' teeth on edge: "Are we there yet?"
Traveling to a new place was always exciting yet frustrating to Lisa as a child. There were new sights to see, but no familiar landmarks. Finally, after hearing the vexing whine for the umpteenth time, Lisa's father handed her a map and said, "I don't know. Why don't you tell me?"
Taking on the tasks identified in your community's plan may be a little like riding in the back seat of a car for a road trip where you don't know the landmarks. So how do you know if you're "there" yet?
Some plan implementation tasks are easy: planting trees along your boulevard or installing a "Welcome to Our Town" sign are the kinds of tasks that have a definite start and finish. When they're done, you can check them off of the to-do list. But other plan implementation projects are not so clear-cut, and it may be difficult to tell if you've achieved them.
We intend this column to help you find the right road map so you can tell not only when your community is "there," but more importantly, that you're making progress. The techniques we find helpful are benchmarking, indicators, regular reviews, and plan accountability, and we believe that some combination of all of these will help keep the implementation of your community's plan on track.
1. Benchmarks and Indicators
Developing a community plan is an exercise in forward-thinking. As a community, you've decided who you are, where you are going to go, and how you are going to get there. Your plan sets the course, and it contains tasks your city or town has probably undertaken before, as well as new activities to address new circumstances.
In looking at the community's agenda in the plan, you may feel like Captain Kirk, "boldly going where no one has gone before." This is where benchmarks and indicators come in handy.
A benchmark is a reference point, a landmark that your community establishes for itself along the way to a completed task. It will help you know when you're making progress, like looking for the big tree on the way to Grandma's house or seeing that familiar exit sign on the highway.
An indicator is what you're measuring. Indicators can be specific and measurable. They can take the form of something as simple as a checklist of tasks accomplished. Indicators help make sure that your plans are specific, rather than just a collection of broad goals. They break each goal down into specific steps assigned to responsible parties; when each step is complete, there's a box that can be checked off or a result measured.
Identifying multiple, small steps along the way is much more effective than waiting for a long time to see if a policy or program is working.
A good indicator system also helps overcome the discouragement that may arise in the community when a large project is underway and it seems like nothing is happening. As a planning commission, you can call attention to all the checked boxes to show that there are successes -- even if the task is long and the way difficult.
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