Is goal management in a public sector environment relevant?

Just finished a discussion with a friend on whether it’s possible to do goal management in a public sector environment. But before we go into that, perhaps I need to define a goal first.

Defining a goal

A goal in a public sector context is, in my book, the object of your efforts, the aim, the desired result. A public organisation strives towards goals which are an operational translation of either the laws and regulations they are bound to uphold or of a strategic intent a minister has defined in a formal or informal set of policy objectives.

Managing goals

Hence, can you manage goals? I don’t think so. You define goals at the start of your journey. You may re-evaluate the feasibility of your goals during your journey, when you become more aware of the capabilities of the team aiming to achieve these goals. What you should not do is “manage” these goals.

What management entails

When you are managing something, such as for example a risk, you are “using” your resources to optimize your exposure to risk. You are in effect changing the way in which you behave towards that risk in order to allow you to reach your objectives.

Herein lies the difference: your attitude towards risk changes throughout your journey towards your goals. You adapt your organisation (your people, your processes, your systems) to make sure the organisation reaches these goals.

Goals of a public sector organisation are not dynamic

The goals, on the contrary, are not dynamic. They are clearly defined at the outset. Imagine for a moment that we had the liberty to change goals. Reaching a goal which can be adapted becomes very easy, because you are in charge of what is defined as the goal. Flying to the moon becomes flying around the earth becomes reaching orbit becomes reaching space becomes building a functional prototype of a rocket …

A concrete and SMART goal should be cast in stone for a public sector organisation. If it is not, it means it was either a bad translation of a law, a regulation or a policy objective or it was not adequately concrete to begin with.

The relevance of the strategic cells

Either way, the lack of specificity means that a lot of public means were lost in the process of making sure the administration is doing the right thing.

This is why the concept of the strategic cells under the Belgian federal Copernicus restructuring were so right: the strategic cells were charged with making sure the administration was doing the right thing. The administration needed to take care it was doing the things it was doing in the best possible way. And the ideal tool for that mission is risk management.