Local Governments Need Goals, As What Gets Measured Gets Done

With a New Year upon us, many people will resolve to make improvements in their lives as far as exercise, diet, relationships, and career. Successful people set goals and track their progress in achieving them.

Successful organizations also set goals and track their progress in achieving them. As the old saying goes, “What gets measured gets done.” Unfortunately many elected officials and governmental agencies in Western New York do not set goals. Without goals an organization does not have a clear sense of direction. There simply are not enough funds to address every community issue, and as such governing is about setting priorities.

New York City’s crime-fighting goals

The invention of CompStat by New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton in the 1990s involved setting goals, measuring progress, and making adjustments to reduce crime. CompStat has been duplicated by many cities, including Baltimore and Buffalo through programs called CitiStat. The CitiStat process involves a city setting goals to improve the delivery of services, such as addressing pothole repairs in 24 hours.

In New York City, Bratton’s team set a goal of reducing crime 10 percent, year after year. The goal was translated downward into specific plans for objectives such as getting guns off the streets, reclaiming public spaces, curbing youth violence in the schools and streets, driving drug dealers out of the city, and breaking the cycle of domestic violence. Each goal contained measurable targets.

The CompStat process was based on feedback on robberies, homicides, burglaries, gun-related deaths, and other statistics that had in many cases been available but not aggressively used for timely problem-solving. Using up-to-the-minute feedback, CompStat ranked precincts against themselves and against other precincts.

Guided by data analysis and by collaboration across levels of the police hierarchy and with other city institutions, CompStat created techniques for solving the problems that were identified.

In the first year of CompStat, there was a 12 percent reduction in reported crime, compared to one percent nationally, and crime kept falling as Bratton continued with CompStat.

Setting high-priority goals

Recently Congress and the Senate passed legislation titled the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act of 2010. The act requires federal agencies to set high-priority goals and develop a plan to accomplish each goal, and to post quarterly performance updates on a single government website.

Over a period of 17 years I have worked for and interacted with a variety of government departments. At a very basic level most government departments do not have clearly understood goals that people are working towards in a united fashion. Without goals people and organizations drift aimlessly. We need more discussion at the state and local government level about setting and monitoring performance goals. When the executive branch, legislative branch, department heads, and employees are on the same page as to high-priority goals, things get accomplished.

Government will not move forward until elected officials collaborate on establishing three high priority goals for each department. It is important to limit department goals, as too many goals cause people and departments to lose focus. In order to be successful, high-priority goals should be established in the following manner:

• In consultation with the council/legislature and those affected by the department’s programs.

• Each goal should have a named owner who is a commissioner or senior official accountable for accomplishing the goal.

• For each goal, the lead department should set out annually how it intends to accomplish the goal. This information should be publicly available and should form a prominent part of each department’s budget submission.

• Progress towards the high-priority goals should be reviewed by council/legislature committees and publicly reported at least every six months.

Defining goals will bring a new clarity of focus and make government more effective and efficient. We need leaders who can work with others instead of fighting about politics, patronage and egos. To move our community forward we need debates about priorities.

Many local governments hold annual goal-setting retreats

Around the country town boards, city councils and county legislatures hold annual goal-setting retreats. At these retreats the town supervisor, mayor, and county executive actually sit down with board members, council members, and legislators to establish a road map of agreed-upon goals for the year. Leadership is about communication, and communication requires meeting with people face-to-face.

It is pretty much unheard of in Western New York for such goal-setting retreats to take place among local government officials. A meeting where the mayor of Buffalo sits with council members to discuss goals and objectives for the year has never happened that I am aware of. At the county level, a meeting where the county executive sits with legislators to set agreed upon goals for the year has never happened.

Instead of a discussion about community goals and objectives, what happens is at the yearly state of the city/county speech, the mayor and the county executive, as kings of the hill, proclaim what their accomplishments have been in the past year and what their goals are for the coming year. Typically council members and legislators have no idea what the mayor’s or county executive’s self-proclaimed goals are going to be until they hear the state of the city/county speech.

At budget time the same process occurs. The mayor and county executive submit their budgets with very little discussion or input from council members and legislators. Leadership by ego or surprise, where goal-setting conversations do not take place because the mayor or county executive do not have to engage others, in the end hurts the community as a whole.

In many communities around the country, elected officials meet to discuss goals and strategies. Perhaps an elected official in Western New York can step forward as a leader and try to take a similar approach. Collaboration, not confrontation, is what we need from our elected leaders.

Benchmarking governmental services

In addition to setting goals, private businesses frequently benchmark their performance to other companies. In the competitive environment of seeking new customers, new products, and new efficiencies, it is good to know how one compares.

While government services are not provided in a competitive environment, they are provided in an environment where funding is scarce and customer needs must be met. Benchmarking government services with other similarly sized towns, cities and counties is a great way to measure and improve performance.

Nine cities recently teamed up with researchers from the University of North Carolina to determine whether benchmarking with other cities would be a beneficial tool. The area that was selected to focus on was the development review process that a private developer must work through to get approval for a project. The focus was on finding a development review process that is fast, thorough, and fair. Although community characteristics and desires vary, there are common elements in development review that can be found across all local governments.

While no one likes the amount of time it takes to study and analyze anything, it is an important and necessary step. After two years of work and taking a look at 160 cities and counties, three benchmarking partners were identified.

At the end of the project, 78 specific ideas for improving the development review process were identified. After a few months 38 of the 78 ideas had been implemented by at least one of the nine participating cities. Two years is a long time to research and learn about what other cities are doing. Certainly a shorter time frame could be utilized to do a less exhaustive comparison. Obtaining 78 ideas for change can have a significant impact on improving a city’s economic development efforts. Lord knows, two years of the status quo can be a terrible price to pay for doing nothing new and innovative.

If your New Year’s resolution is to lose weight, then you need to determine what you weigh now and what weight you want to reach. If we want better schools, safe neighborhoods, and quality housing, then as a community we must determine where we are now and where we want to be. We need our elected leaders to communicate and collaborate with each other on goals and objectives. In order to evaluate how we are doing and to hold people accountable, success in achieving our goals needs to be measured and monitored. What gets measured gets done.


Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Miranda Braatz

The title of this article is misleading. Many local governments have long-term strategic plans which are documents that can sometimes be hundreds of pages and take months to write with vast input from the community. Most local governments regularly update and follow this plan. In fact, most States require all local governments to have strategic plans in order to get certain types of funding.

Local government has increasingly professionalized throughout the years. I understand that govloop is trying to outreach to the local government community, but telling us we need to set measurable goals is not the way.

Paul Wolf

Thanks for your comment Miranda. I agree that most local governments have strategic plans but I disagree that most local governments follow those strategic plans. Perhaps my viewpoint is jaded from the dysfunction I experienced in Buffalo, NY. From my experience most elected officials, department heads and members of the public do not know what is in the strategic plan sitting on the shelf that was drafted several years ago.

My point is that elected officials, department heads and the public should be involved in setting three high priority goals per department on an annual basis that should be monitored for success. This process happens in some communities but it does not happen in many.

Just sharing my experience and observation which certainly may differ from yours.