"When is a Strategic Plan not?" by Vera Fessler

Vera Fessler earlier wrote an excellent analysis of the library's Beta Plan. Now she looks at Fairfax County Public Library's  Strategic Plan - which is the foundation for the misguided "strategic redirection" (aka Beta plan)


When is a Strategic Plan not? by Vera Fessler

  Earlier I wrote about the FCPL “Beta Plan”, and I have been asked to add thoughts on the Strategic Plan.

“Strategic Plan 2013-2015”  uses  clear language and engaging presentation, but it fails to meet the rigors of a  true strategic plan but is an administrative iteration of its values, omitting all reference to the current crises of funding, lowering user levels, and curtailment of services.. Since there are elements expected in strategic  plans not included and there is a total lack of goals/evaluation,  discerning its purpose and usefulness is  problematic. At the same time, its very general terms can be used as cover for virtually any direction or path that might be chosen.  The reasons and timing for strategic plan development  typically center around new opportunities and challenges, in the public and non-profit  sectors as well as in the business sector. They are meant to put present choices into a long term trajectory.  They are not short term coping documents.   The unspoken but clearly understood questions which all  plans seek to resolve are ·  

      “Do we have a business? If yes, how do we maximize its potential? ·          If so not, should the assets be sold, merged, or liquidated? ·    

  If we do have a business, is it sufficiently capitalized to succeed?” These are wrenching questions. They are not one of the seven broadly recognized elements of a strategic plan, but they are answered by the steps within the plan. To avoid the reality of any one of these questions invariably leads to an unsuccessful plan. For this reason, among others, the hammering out of a strategic plan in the private sector is not an administrative exercise but is purposely inclusive of alternative views and dissenters: marketing, development, administration, engineering, production, finance, operations are more often at loggerheads than not as they hammer out the best solution, which is not the first choice of any sector but simply the one which works for the success of the company overall.  One does not need to have been in a business long to know firsthand the tension between these sectors – necessary tensions.   In the public and non-profit sectors that creative and ultimately invaluable tension and its creative insights can be gained only when the planning process includes the “dissenters and doubters” as well as supporters.  This is why Multnomah, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, San Diego, and Seattle public libraries, along with many others, have developed plans which led them to exemplary successes despite facing all the challenges of other libraries nationally, and in the cases of both San Diego and Charlotte-Mecklenberg financial support was far direr than that faced by FCPL.

 By contrast, the FCPL plan was crafted entirely by those holding one view, i.e., supporting the views of the current administration to the exclusion of all others. This exclusivity has become so paramount that any dissent – staff, public, or even of a member of the Board of Supervisors who was forced to produce photographs and physical evidence-- is answered by the mantra “there is misinformation. If only you understood, this would all be fine.”  Well, no.  Without the support of the dissenters, the equivalent of customer boycotts in the private sector, failure is assured.  In fact, very cursory investigation into one of the questions is obvious: the library is woefully, perhaps fatally, undercapitalized.  There  are possible responses to that condition, ranging from infusions , alternate funding streams, special tax districts (used often in California, and used locally in Reston to support its Arts Center) contracting out, and mergers.  It is not a productive answer in the long term to ignore the obvious short fall by maintaining  one sector at the expense of the others.  Imbalances ultimately fatally cripple the organization.

 Obvious fissures in FCPL are already very visible: branches are open, all branches are open, and yet even the most high demand titles are reaching their shelves months after their release dates, richness in online databases is not present and their accessibility is made clumsy, so that presenters within FCPL use Arlington databases because they reliably “stay up” and have depth. Expected technologies , such as QR codes, have not been integrated into the library. That said, the planning process, ignoring the need for balance in input and operational responses are flawed. Development of strategic plans are arduous and research based processes – working members need to be drawn beyond the administrative staff to include  representatives of  all potential user communities: disabled, business, military, education,  commerce, immigrant , aged,  arts, non-profits, health,  as well as front line and technical support staff., etc. etc. Impossible? No. Been done and is done.  Over and over and over – successfully.

The FCPL plan has failed to address the research to support answers to the question, “Do we have a business?”  Instead is assumes  the tradition  of local government statements of values on the assumption that the organization, in this case the library,  exists for the public good and no further measures other than outputs are necessary.  Its methodology is reverse of a business strategic plan, and thus shields itself from accountability. It is also developed in a vacuum, quite apart from public library experience, developments, standards and best practices outside of itself as well as other players in the public information ecology. No private sector strategic planning process would omit the step of competitor research. In the public sector the equivalent is best practices research with proven outcomes.  Without this component, FCPL’s plan cannot project probable  successes or failures as a basis for operational plans—it can only point to operating within certain fiscal limits and  not if those operations will be meeting community needs. Without this projection, there is no answer to the question, “Do we have a business here?”   Without “profit expectations” – in the public sector “profit” is expressed in measurable outcomes, i.e., changes reflective of the goals of the parent organization, there can be no justification for the organization as a whole.  Buildings and hours can be means, but they are overheads.

 It is striking to see suggestions of additional proposed branches in Merrifield and Tysons when support is lacking for existing branches and further without examination of the branch-based model altogether. Taking a very hypothetical example rooted in an actual situation, would better literacy outcomes  result  if Martha Washington were shuttered, its resources and staff reallocated to Sherwood leading to embedded literacy librarians in the community, both child and adult?? The public schools in the Mount Vernon area are teetering on accreditation measures, in large part because of low literacy rates.  At the same time, in my neighborhood between those two branches I am often asked why there are two branches so close to one another, neither with a strong collection. At the same time there is a strong push for small business development on the Route 1 corridor and virtually no business resources or information advisory staff at either Martha or Sherwood.  While the library cannot address every county need, it can, in fact must if it is strategic, look at the intersection of the library and larger county needs if there can be any outcome measures at all. In other words, it needs to consciously make its choices and services in light of broader social impacts.

 There are some cases, where only the library can “create the product”, i.e., packaging information from disparate sources for user accessibility, e. g.,local zoning, license, and other factors for successful business placement. Businesses cannot address all market opportunities, translate them into products, and gain a profit; however they focus sharply on what they do well. One example we all know is the 3M Corporation—huge, with just one line of business: coatings. The library can, and really must from a strategic survival view, align its products and services (access to packages of information) very closely to county priorities, not simply the county vision statement but the county priorities in response to changing circumstances.  These presently include creatively addressing homelessness, housing, unemployment, STEM education. Any business strategic plan derives from examining the two interacting   entities and projecting where there are intersections benefitting both. The corporation has a body of strengths: expertise, products, recognition, and so on.  Its customer base, present and possible future, have unmet needs.  The intersection of the two determines the trajectory of the strategic plan. FCPL, similarly, has a body of strengths. Among them are expertise in identifying and organizing information to make it useful, public trust,  a physical footprint in the community, some (limited) access to technology, and basically the community core for literacy (in the broadest senses), literature, learning (again in the broadest sense), and information.

Today’s community has a large array of unmet needs. To understand the strategic role for the library rests in deep understanding of the community needs and  proactively addressing those with the highest “profit”,i.e., highest “impact.” Much has been said about technology changing information seeking patterns by all of society.  There are blips of excitement about particular technologies which skew perceptions of the true trajectory –examples go back as far in FCPL history as cable television, which was briefly and disastrously installed in one branch to the present emphasis on e-books.  What technology has really changed is communication patterns, and these in turn have changed the way of individuals interacting with institutions: any organization which relies on personal visits as the means for conducting transactions is probably unsustainable.   Information seeking has become a more critical endeavor –getting the correct information upon which to make decisions has become more, not less, complex as well as more critical.  Complex users’ queries have grown throughout the public library world, advancing to real research support.

 While it is not always useful to point to another library’s practices,  it may be useful to look at Arlington Public Library’s array of reference services listed  at http://library.arlingtonva.us/ask-a-librarian, which lists options from live Chat and  email  to making an appointment with the business librarian for business, competitor, target audience, or investment research.  There is also a note, “More experts by appointment coming soon!)  I use this example for several reasons: 1) the total array makes full use of the professional competencies of librarians at the same time responds to a real community (customer) needs resulting in measurable impacts; 2) Arlington is community not demographically unlike Fairfax;, and 3) Arlington a Library Journal Star library, ranking it overall one of the top four public libraries in the Commonwealth of Virginia.  All four have significant and growing information services, both within and outside the confines of branch buildings and are worthy of examination.


·E-books made a great splash when Amazon announced that their e-book sales eclipsed print sales . . .The story does not end there.  Since spring, 2013, trade publications indicate a struggle to understand the fizzle of e-book sales.  Certainly, when there are over 1,000 holds on a title at FCPL for a book taking four months post-release to reach the branches, there is solid indication that interest in print is alive and well.  The most careful analyses lean to a settling of the e-book market, with e-books becoming complementary to, not successors of, print. The closest analogy is audio books.  Several studies suggest that the growth in popularity of tablets over e-readers has contributed to this reversal of e-book growth. Tablets are the preferred instrument at the moment, and they temptingly encourage browsing, multitasking, skipping about, while e-readers can be used only to read.  Further cooling of the e-book market is clearly indicated by rapidly falling prices. E-books, like audio books, will continue.  They will not replace in our lifetimes.   To answer to three core questions – no clarity from reading the FCPL Strategic Plan.  What has become very clear is that there is a great mistrust, dissatisfaction, and anger on all sides as a resulting operational plan resting on the Strategic plan. 

FCPL is in shambles by any measure: declining circulation, attendance,  declining support for library bond issues,  unprecedented delays in books reaching branches relative to their release dates—four months for high interest  titles now the norm,  denying the preferences of  branch users’ reading  through the “floating collection”,  abolition of youth services even in those areas where school performances are down, no support for non-profit organizations upon which the county is relying, silencing staff , Friends and Foundation. The wounds are deep.  No quick resolution will heal them. It may be prudent to take a long pause, put this year in a hold pattern – no changes in budget or operations, and engage an outside independent consultant, reporting directly and solely to the Board of Supervisors, to work with community representative, the Library Board, County, administration and staff to develop a plan and recommendations, including answers to the three critical questions. At the same time, empowering g the Library Board of Trustees can take place: a  dedicated administrative assistant for the Board, training in the Library of Virginia on both its role in the Commonwealth’s libraries and its standards, and developing member liaison assignments and relationships assuring member competencies in not only library operational sectors but also to community  structure.  I fully realize that these recommendations take both time and funding – which might possibly be a wise social investment for Friends or Foundation—and a real empowerment of the Library Board of Trustees to ensure their fruitful interactions in the selection of the next director.   Without such a bold step, rancor and disillusionment is sure to follow. Normally these steps take place upon the retirement of the director – hitting the re-set button, especially after a long single tenure –giving a fresh start to the organization. Although there is no announced retirement presently, this is a nearly unprecedentedly long period without a committed total re-examination of the library. 


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