6 Tips for Effective Goal Setting in Government

August 13, 2014 10:41 am PST | Data as a Service, Effective Governing

Setting goals for an organization is a difficult task. In fact, it’s probably one of the most intimidating requirements for any leader. We are living in a time of unprecedented doubt about government’s ability to perform and now, more than ever before, it is a leadership imperative to openly set goals and demonstrate a defensible path toward achievement. Whether that means creating more jobs, improving test scores in our schools, feeding hungry children, or providing the infrastructure to support our growth, citizens are relying on government’s ability to deliver. But, how do you construct goals that create the incentive for your workforce to deliver, that also resonate with the people you serve? I don’t claim to have all the answers, but have had the opportunity to support leaders that are doing this with great success. Here are some of the commonalities in their approach:

1. Take advantage of existing subject matter expertise. Government is stocked with gifted and passionate people. The old adage that people don’t work in government for the paycheck is true. One common mistake during transitions between administrations is a mistrust of the subject matter experts that work  in organizations. Remember to use them as a resource. These folks have been working hard to solve these problems long before you arrived and they will be there long after you leave. Take advantage of their knowledge and include them in your process — it leads to smarter goals and also greatly increases the likelihood of buy-in and success.

2. Listen to your citizens. Create goals your citizens will understand and directly impact their quality of life. If your goals as a leader are too convoluted or contrived, they will contribute to a general mistrust of government. People want to see progress through the lens of their own experiences. They want their roads to be safer, their schools to be better, their needs met. Some governments will survey constituents to see where they should focus, while others convene forums or town hall style sessions to get feedback. Increasingly, leaders are using social media listening tools and web analytics to determine what is top of mind for their citizens.

3. Stay connected to your frontline. When leadership focuses on issues or delivery that are disconnected from the realities of the frontline, they struggle to create lasting change. I encourage every leader or leadership team to spend some time with the hard working people who are delivering government services to citizens. They are full of great ideas on how to improve and they will ultimately be responsible for doing the work.

4. Create goals that are measurable. This, on its face, seems like an easy task but often there is not one data point that reflects a government’s level of effort in working toward goals. This shouldn’t be a dealbreaker. Instead, be sure to provide the right context. For example, student success can be measured by test scores, graduation rates, matriculation to higher education, readiness to learn, and countless other factors. Find a measure that parents, educators, and your team find compelling and keep tabs on the data. Creating a baseline and tracking data will often be the impetus to finding the right measure.

5. Use validating data when available. There are many common datasets that can validate your efforts and are universally appreciated as a standard. A few examples of datasets that serve as external validators are the Uniform Crime Reports published by the FBI, The Bureau Labor Statistics Unemployment Rate, or the the Big Three credit agencies’ bond ratings. More universally accepted and standardized your data becomes, the more credibility it will lend your goals.

6. Be flexible. Setting goals, particularly in government, is not an exact science. Make sure you configure your methodology to the possibility that what you measure may need to change, that your goal may be too aggressive, or perhaps not aggressive enough. Communicate your goal methodology to your stakeholders so that they have an opportunity to weigh in. This will help build partnership and understanding that will be invaluable if changes become necessary.


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