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Goal Power: Use It, or It’s Useless


Goal power.

John F. Kennedy understood the power of a goal when he announced in 1961 the goal of landing a man on the moon in a decade and returning him safely back home, a goal reached eight years later. The world health community understood it when it set the goal of eradicating polio in 1988, a goal it has nearly met and continues to manage aggressively. Bill Gates understood it when he wrote in his 2013 annual letter that “you can achieve amazing progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal in a feedback loop” and then treated the United Nations’ Millennial Development Goals as more than just words on paper, but also objectives to which he might contribute intelligence and resources.

People across the federal government are also learning to tap the power of well-framed, ambitious goals in a few priority areas. This was reinforced earlier this month when the Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan announced the fourth round of federal agency near-term priority goals, goals to be met within the next two fiscal years, now posted on along with progress updates on previous priority goals.

Wait a minute, you might wonder, how can a goal improve results, lower costs, or make programs more fair, understandable and accountable? A strong body of experience and research finds that if a stretch goal is understandable and ambitious, while reasonable relative to available resources, it tends to motivate effort, stimulate discovery and communicate priorities. Even without threat of penalty or promise of reward, a well-framed goal tends to unleash people's instincts to do well and contribute to something bigger than themselves. Stretch goals inspire, inviting and challenging people to focus their efforts.  Combined with frequent data-rich discussions that identify where progress is being made, where problems exist, why, and what actions to try next to accelerate progress on the goal, they encourage people to test better ways to make progress with available resources. If not too numerous, clearly defined priority goals serve as a convenient shorthand for inexpensively and concisely communicating to people in and beyond an organization where to concentrate effort, intelligence and other needed resources. When organizational leadership changes, new leaders can use goals to convey quickly where to stay the course and where priorities have changed. Also, specific goals are handy for inviting knowledge from those outside government, enlisting assistance that accelerates progress on a goal and encouraging consideration of the appropriateness of a goal relative to other priorities.

Progress has been made on many federal priority goals. Patent review and veteran disability claims processing take less time, and backlogs have dropped. Energy intensity in Defense Department facilities is also falling, while the department’s renewable energy production and procurement are rising. The percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees is going up, while general aviation accidents and adult cigarette smoking are going down. Plus, several intriguing FeedbackUSA pilots have been initiated as part of the customer service cross-agency priority goal -- asking “customers” to tap buttons indicating satisfaction level on passport, Social Security and other interactions with the federal government to provide easy, fast feedback that is already revealing areas needing attention.

Progress has also been made on the process. This year, agency priority goals were announced at the beginning of the first fiscal year for which the goals are set, four months earlier than usual. Donovan announced the goals, indicating not only their importance, but also suggesting their use in deciding on funding to propose in the upcoming budget.

Two particularly interesting process developments are the creation of the new Leadership Delivery Network and the White House Leadership Development Fellows. The first will bring 25 goal leaders together every other month to learn from and brainstorm with each other and outside experts how to drive progress in these priority areas. The second takes on the very intractable challenge of managing progress on cross-agency priority goals requiring action from multiple agencies. Sixteen fellows from different agencies with a range of skill sets and perspectives have been chosen through a rigorous selection process to support implementation of cross-agency priority goals and initiatives, starting in November.

Of course, not every goal is progressing as expected and, in truth, it is still too hard to see performance trends on most priority goals over multiple years. Is that because some goal leaders and perhaps agency heads still view goal-setting and performance measurement as annoying requirements? Do they not appreciate how powerful goals can be when they are actually used to improve performance and inform the public? I hope not, but I fear that in some cases that is still the case.

The bottom line is goals are useless unless used. The most useful goals inspire broadly and motivate specifically, not just those in government but those outside of it, as John F. Kennedy, the world health community, and those who set the U.N. Millennial Development Goals understood. Have you looked at the government’s new priority goals?  Do they make sense and excite you? If they don’t, have you provided feedback through or other means?

Goal power. Use it or it’s useless. That goes for those in government, but also for us, as citizens, who want high-performing government.

Shelley H. Metzenbaum is senior advisor at the Volcker Alliance. She served as associate director for performance and personnel management at the Office of Management and Budget during the first term of the Obama administration.

(Image via albund/

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