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Mississippi has a much larger population than Maine, but like its cousin in the Northeast, the majority of its citizens (two-thirds) live in small, rural towns. In order to be as inclusive as possible, the Mississippi Arts Commission in 1996 began a process that reached 910 citizens statewide through a rich array of devices (see opening chart), and led to the creation of the 47-page Mississippians and the Arts: Partnerships for the 21st Century. The agency's full planning process had the following steps:

  • plan to plan
  • select consultants
  • collect background materials for research questions
  • hold staff and commission Planning Committee retreat
  • distribute surveys and hold statewide public meetings
  • coalesce information
  • write draft plan and circulate for comments
  • edit and distribute final version of plan
Executive Director Betsy Bradley spent 50 percent of her time on planning-related activities for nine months, and estimates that each of her program staff (who were individually responsible for writing their own sections of the plan) devoted one-third of their time to planning. Bradley explains, "This was a huge commitment of staff time, but I felt strongly that they had to be integrally involved in order to have ownership of the plan." Although the executive director and staff drove the process, they worked in tandem with both a Planning Committee and Advisory Cabinet of the council (two groups that continue to be close partners with staff).

Mississippi's plan vision did not change significantly from its previous incarnation, but this time was more informed by extensive regional research and environmental scanning that included looking at economic reports, foundation information, national trends in the arts and nonprofit community, trends in performance-based funding, statistics from the education sector and an extensive evaluation of agency programs. The inclusion of artists was ensured by their extensive involvement in the entire process, and the fact that staff made an effort to attend gatherings of artists and arts service organizations outside of those initiated by the agency.

This groundwork helped the agency to identify four main areas of emphasis:

  • developing communities with a rich sense of place
  • addressing the challenges a rural state poses for the distribution of resources
  • improving the education of the state's children
  • enhancing the image of Mississippi

This led to the creation of four major goals for the agency—goals that were not dissimilar from those of prior years, but a bit more specific, and are considered to be of equal value:

  • Support the development of Mississippi communities through the arts.
  • Develop the network of arts providers and the arts industry in Mississippi.
  • Strengthen education in and through the arts.
  • Increase knowledge of and pride in Mississippi arts and culture.
The plan addresses adaptability by stressing the environment and key issues, more than it does strategies with very specific outcomes. This is done on purpose so that the agency can have the flexibility to be responsive to the environment as it changes. The plan allows for measurability by stating priorities and potential strategies, which then can be translated annually into layers of accountability to satisfy legislative requirements. Although the agency folds evaluation into its ongoing activities, there is a formal report made by staff at the end of every year that outlines the extent to which objectives were achieved.

The collaborative nature of the plan is obvious, since the title itself is Partnerships for the 21st Century. Bradley's Planning Advisory Cabinet consisted of nineteen leaders from state agencies, statewide service organizations and other partners. In addition, throughout the process the agency approached many of the planning participants as potential partners.

One unusual aspect of the effort in Mississippi is the way the plan has shaped every aspect of agency operations. The entire agency has been restructured to be in perfect alignment with the plan's goals. Where there were previously twelve grant program areas in the agency, there are now four to match each of the plan's four major goals. Each goal program area has its own program director, and each program provides operating, project and mini-grant support. The plan has become the decision-making tool for the agency (against which all opportunities and programs are judged) and provides the structure for the agenda of all council meetings.

Bradley cautions that there were some pitfalls along the way, including the low attendance of non-arts constituents at town meetings and the resistance to change by old-guard grantees. Although she hesitates to give advice to others, Bradley does look back at her planning experience and notes some important principles: "Pay attention to your own state and your own culture, and to what works. Do your research in terms of learning wisdom from other fields. And let go of control and power to leverage even more through strategic partnerships."

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