Goal Power

A well-framed goal has tremendous power in driving government accomplishments to new heights. So, asks Shelley Metzenbaum, what makes some goals effective performance drivers and others ineffective?
February 27, 2008
She is the director of the Edward J. Collins Jr. Center for Public Management at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies, University of Massachusetts Boston.
By Shelley Metzenbaum  |  Contributor
Shelley Metzenbaum was a GOVERNING contributor. She is the director of the Edward J. Collins Jr. Center for Public Management at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies, University of Massachusetts Boston.

John F. Kennedy understood it in 1961 when he announced a goal of landing a man on the moon in a decade and returning him safely back to earth, a goal met in 1969. New York City Police Commissioner William J. Bratton understood it in 1994 when he set a goal, also subsequently met, of reducing violent crime by 25 percent in two years. What did these two government leaders understand? They understood the tremendous power of a well-framed goal for driving government accomplishments to new heights.

Goals, of course, do not always lead to performance gains. Targets can be missed, and more often, ignored. So, what makes some goals effective performance drivers and others ineffective? Understanding the answer to this question can help government managers use goals as a power tool.

How Goals Work

Goals work in two distinct ways: They motivate and they communicate. A well-framed goal unleashes people's instincts to do well and to contribute to something bigger than themselves. Kennedy did not need to threaten penalties or promise rewards when he announced his ambitious vision. The goal itself inspired. It invited and challenged people to achieve the objective.

Goals also drive performance because they communicate. Goals that are specific and clearly defined serve as a sort of shorthand language. They inexpensively and concisely communicate to the people in an agency where to concentrate their efforts and intelligence. Goals support alignment across government organizations, as well.

Sometimes, goals communicate to other organizations within the same jurisdiction. When Dubai established a strategic goal of sustaining an annual GDP growth rate of 11 percent for 10 years through 2015, it sent a strong message to the Dubai Electric and Water Authority: Deliver the needed water and power capacity to support this goal, or risk jeopardizing the whole strategy.

Goals can prompt effective action that crosses jurisdictional lines, and they can encourage other levels of government and other organizations to contribute ideas, expertise and resources. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene uses the infant-mortality goal of the federal Healthy People 2010 framework as a target in its annual performance report to the public, showing how a well-framed goal can influence intergovernmental action.

Furthermore, specific targets are a great way to support cooperative efforts and sustain political pressure to attain a shared objective. For example, the numerous, but discrete, goals set for the restoration of Chesapeake Bay sea grasses, blue crabs, oysters and bass serve to heighten the political pressure on local elected officials to adopt regulatory and other practices to meet these goals. For over a decade, Kyoto Protocol targets have stimulated continuous public debate to reduce greenhouse gases. Frustrated by federal failure to ratify the Kyoto protocol by 2005, 500 American cities have signed up to try to meet the Kyoto targets on their own (i.e., cutting greenhouse gases by 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012).

Key Characteristics of Effective Goals

Goals are not a magic bullet. They seldom work if too numerous, too complex or overly ambitious relative to available knowledge, skills, equipment and resources. To motivate and communicate successfully, goals need to be specific, challenging but realistic, outcome-focused, and public. Most important, progress toward them must be measured, and that measurement must be effectively used.

While serving New York, Bratton did not set a general goal to reduce crime; he set a specific goal indicating how much (25 percent), where (citywide and in each precinct), and by when (2 years) crime should decline. Kennedy similarly set a goal specifying who (man), how much (one), where (the moon), and when (a decade). Narrowing a general goal to a specific target augments its motivational and communication potential.

Ambitious targets, such as those set by Kennedy and Bratton, energize and stimulate innovation more than easily achieved goals because they require people to apply not just their effort but also their intelligence. If targets are overly ambitious or too complex, though, people give up. Agencies should adopt only a few stretch targets. However, it doesn't hurt to add targets to communicate areas where steady gains are expected and where level performance will be acceptable.

Both Kennedy and Bratton chose targets likely to grab public attention and publicized their goal announcement. They welcomed the attention as a way to place pressure on their agencies to deliver.

Measurement Is Essential

It is not enough to announce goals in speeches or agency plans, even if the goals are specific, challenging, outcome-focused and public. To bring a goal to life, progress must be measured. Measuring progress toward goals sends a new message that previously stated goals remain important to the organization. The 500 mayors who committed to the Kyoto Protocol targets make their pronouncements real when their communities actually begin measuring and reporting carbon reductions.

Perhaps most important, collected measurement needs to be studied, discussed and used. Measuring crime rates and reporting them to the public does not bring the crime level down. The data need to be analyzed to recognize crime patterns and to identify crime-reducing tactics that work and warrant replication as well as those that do not that need adjustment or need to be abandoned.

Risks and Returns of Goal-Setting

Goal-setting is not without risk. Missed targets offer ammunition to critics seeking opportunities for political attack. It is undoubtedly politically safer to measure performance without specific targets, and safer still to deliver services without measuring their impact. Yet well-framed goals, paired with measurement, are remarkably powerful (and low-cost) tools for generating public value. Smart managers don't leave home without them.

For more discussion about the power of goals as a government leadership tool and references to research on this subject, see www.ksg.harvard.edu/visions/performance_management/local_memo.pdf and www.businessofgovernment.org/main/publications/grant_reports/details/index.asp?GID=277.