At a Glance

An inclusive, virtual strategic planning approach enabled a broad cross-section of Asheville Parks & Recreation Department staff to develop aligned strategies to expand customer-centric services that strengthen integrated efforts, accountability & staff ownership, reduce red tape, and are equitable & sustainable.

Problem Addressed

The department comprises 90+ staff, with the majority working in the field and responsible for maintaining more than 54 recreation sites, also they provide new programs and services, e.g., learning sites to support Asheville City Schools during COVID. These responsibilities persisted amidst operational and programming shifts, new legal requirements related to COVID and working with an outdated plan.

The department faced divisional communication challenges, geographically dispersed locations, and shifting priorities contributed persistent hints of a silo mentality. Likewise, the department recognized the need to shore up their efforts to ensure across-the-board equitable, sustainable programming and safety measures.

With the completion of securing a $17M bond referendum that encompasses multiple facility improvements and infrastructure projects, the department was in search of a strong center of gravity to unify their future work. They were also in the early phase of realigning departmental roles and adapting their mobile recreation initiative to be COVID-responsive.

“We wanted a process that would include and handle input from all levels of the department, not just leadership, and would honor all perspectives in designing consensus strategies,” said Roderick Simmons, Director of the City of Asheville’s Parks and Recreation Department.”

Early on in the facilitated process, the planning team created the question below to articulate what they wanted the plan to address, and therefore, to guide the development of a cohesive plan:

“How will we, as the dedicated staff of the City of Asheville’s Parks and Recreation Department,

• deepen our culture of teamwork & accountability, strengthen communication and trust

• integrate and align all operations and programming, and

• expand staff development opportunities department-wide

while serving as a model of service delivery excellence to the community?”

City of Asheville Parks & Recreation used/is using inclusive, action-oriented strategic plan with accountability aspects to address this/these challenge(s).

Solution(s) Used

Discovery Phase – Widespread distribution of a user-friendly survey to gain input on what staff consider most pressing issues, especially from those not participating in virtual planning sessions. Included cataloguing recent accomplishments and current department state of affairs.

Design Meeting – Core planning team developed focus and 3-4 most compelling issues to be addressed by the plan.

Consultant and Facilitation Team – Partnered with experienced subcontractors of virtually facilitated meetings, HueLife and Bourke & Associates, to produce virtual sessions, i.e., handle technology, incorporate engagement strategies, co-facilitate brainstorming breakouts using tried and true ToP® facilitation process (ToP® – Technology of Participation), design interactive whiteboard graphics and PowerPoint slides.

Inclusive Process – Ensured that all ideas generated were given equal consideration and combined to reflect the best thinking of administrative, facility, program & field staff.

“We grew this plan from the ground up together so all levels of the organization understand and own it—there’s no learning curve to slow us down. The process set a “can do” tone with clear actions, milestones, and shared responsibilities. We are implementing what we crafted together.” Simmons said.

Virtual Strategic Planning Modules – Intentionally spaced out over 2 weeks using Zoom, Miro (whiteboard platform) and PowerPoint slides, along with Google Documents.

Module Themes:

• Context of Current Situation and Recent Accomplishments

• National Parks & Recreation Trends Inventory to assess where this local department stacks up on current and emerging national trends

• Practical, Shared Vision for 3 years into the future that articulates consensus on key desired accomplishments and underscores alignment on the desired future

• Underlying Contradictions (internal) – a sobering, candid and respectful session that identifies unproductive patterns and dynamics that interfere with effectiveness, without resorting to finger pointing or blaming. This session is central to developing a realistic plan that accounts for internal limiting behavioral habits.

• Strategic Directions – Key Action Arenas populated with ideas to directly address Contradictions and move toward fulfillment of the Vision

• Decisions made on quarterly specific, measurable projects to populate the One-Year Project Implementation Calendar that guides day-to-day decision making

• Orientation to detailed Project Implementation Worksheets for 1st Quarter projects to support successful execution of priority initiatives

• Facilitation training for Strategic Direction Team Leaders & Plan Coordinators to carry the precedent of broad participation established during planning process into the Implementation Phase.

• Quarterly Progress Meetings to celebrate progress, make needed adjustment to the Implementation Calendar, plan for the Annual Plan Update Meeting


  1. Staff-driven, bureaucracy-busting initiative to cut red tape and increase community engagement and access to Parks & Rec facilities, e.g., streamlined leasing agreement from 8 to 2 pages.
  2. Social equity policy expanded to further increase partnerships with community organizations to solicit citizen input & shape responsive policies for the new neighborhood Community Center.
  3. Participatory Strategic Planning process adopted, engaged staff at all levels from start to finish, affirmed the value of staff input throughout & reinvigorated ownership of plan outcomes.
  4. Leveraged this planning initiative as an opportunity to develop staff and model an aligned culture of collaboration and accountability necessary to deliver on commitments.
  5. Anchored the 14 strategic projects & initiatives in the One-Year Implementation Calendar as the basis for developing goals and objectives of the department’s 3 central functions.

Lessons Learned

  1. The participatory approach, consistent engagement opportunities & consensus process cinched ownership of the plan & emotional energy to execute on jointly decided priority initiatives.
  2. Level playing field and objective facilitation ensured that all perspectives received equal air time and consideration; conveyed a renewed sense of collaboration and relationship building.

Something Unique

• The department launched a solid, integrated plan within 8 weeks as opposed to the traditional 4-6 months in contrast to typical planning processes

• Active participation & engagement from all levels of the department

• Was the first city department to develop & implement a Social Equity Plan in 2016

• Combination of virtual platforms replicated the in-person experience that underscored the invitation for all to participate.

Who Should Consider?

Any municipality or department wanting a fool-proof process for authentic participation, commitment and reliable implementation framework and open to involving all layers of the organization as partners.

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