John O'Leary is a former GOVERNING contributor. He is co-author of "If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government."E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
What does it mean for government when political leaders routinely set unrealistic goals that go unrealized?
Goals lose their power to guide and inspire.
Consider No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Passed into law with the support of George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy, the legislation flew by with 90 percent of Congress voting for it. Everyone loved NCLB -- I mean, who wants to leave even a single child behind?
"The most toxic flaw in NCLB was its legislative command that all students in every school must be proficient in reading and math by 2014," writes education expert Diane Ravitch, pointing out that this includes special needs students, students who don't speak English and students who are capable but utterly disinterested in learning.
In mandating the unattainable, Congress actually demotivated teachers. Instead of trying harder to teach kids, administrators looked at how to game the testing system. Nobody took the goal seriously, so it was worse than no goal at all. An unrealistic goal merely sets everybody up to fail.
Our nation is growing accustomed to seeing grandiose goals ignored. In the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter set the goal that by the year 2000, 20 percent of our energy would come from the sun. In reality, solar met less than one percent of our needs at the turn of the century. In 2004, President Bush set the goal of putting a man on the moon by 2016. President Obama has quietly pulled the plug on that initiative, which no one had taken very seriously anyway.
In his 1964 state of the union speech, President Lyndon Johnson declared "an all out war on poverty." As Johnson put it, "Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it." It's not that the sentiment isn't appreciated, but there must be a difference between an ideal and a goal. An ideal is a statement about your values. A goal has to be achievable.
If we take Johnson's statement as a sentiment, it is lofty and noble. If we judge it as a goal that will actually guide behavior, it is absurd.
Psychologists know that there is a point at which people feel challenged, and they respond with greater effort. But there is also a breaking point. Once a person realizes they can never attain their goal, they give up and fall into despair.
Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Switch, argue that when individuals are asked to do too much, they break down. "We're all used to hearing about stretch goals, and when you feel empowered, stretch goals are useful ambition teasers. But when you feel overwhelmed, stretch goals are a recipe for paralysis," note the Heaths.
Overwhelmed is probably the number one adjective that government employees who care about their work use to describe themselves. Smart managers would do well to insulate their employees from the "bridge-too-far" goals of politicians, and keep the focus on shorter term, more attainable improvements.
But for politicians, small goals sound too weenie. Big Hairy Audacious Goals are more suited to the outsized personalities of those seeking elected office. Who's going to vote for someone who says, "Well, I'd be happy if we could improve such-and-such by 15 percent." No way, not when the other guy says he's going to make things perfect!
So politicians set fantasy goals and we pretend to take them seriously. In 2007, the Massachusetts Commission to End Homelessness released its report to a waiting world. It began: "Ending and preventing homelessness is possible. The Massachusetts Commission to End Homelessness has developed a 5-year plan that, if implemented and funded appropriately, will succeed in ending homelessness in the Commonwealth by 2013."
Yawn. Call me back in 2013, will ya?
Again, it's not that this problem isn't serious or worthy of our best collective efforts. It's just that fantasy goals don't help achieve anything. Am I a better person if I set a public goal of ending homelessness? Or stopping all teenage pregnancy? Or ending schoolyard bullying?
Goals for government have their place, but they must be realistic.
Consider one of the most famous political goals of all time: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."
When Kennedy set this goal, its achievement seemed unlikely. Kennedy specifically selected an ambitious goal so that in accomplishing it, he could demonstrate to the world that democracy was capable of great achievements. "We do not choose to go to the moon and do these other things not because they are easy," Kennedy said. "But because they are hard."
Hard. Not impossible. He didn't say we'd go to Pluto and build a Dairy Queen. He said we'd go to the moon, maybe play some golf and come home. And that's what we did.
Putting a man on the moon is still a source of great national pride. Forty years have passed, and no one else has done it yet. Kennedy's goal inspired the nation and helped guide the efforts of thousands of employees at NASA. That's what a goal can do in government -- if it's realistic.