Setting goals to drive public policy is a traditional method of creating and sustaining innovative change and this article focuses on that.
February 27, 2008
By Shelley Metzenbaum
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 11percent 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).