Using OKRs in Local Government

Sam Edelstein
Sep 27, 2019 · 7 min read

Many organizations use some kind of performance management system to understand progress toward goals. Cities are no different, and thanks to organizations like What Works Cities which helps city governments use more data to drive decisions, this is becoming even more common.

In Syracuse, we are no different. Using data, evidence, and measurement is important and a part of the vision for running a successful government. For us, we chose to use a model called Objectives and Key Results, or OKRs, to set goals and monitor our progress.

OKRs, first developed by Andy Grove and used at Intel, are now common at many of the most successful companies in the world, including Google. You can read more about them and some success stories in the excellent book, Measure What Matters by John Doerr. They ask us to set a lofty objective that doesn’t contain a specific numeric goal. Then we set key results that if achieved, should mean we also have achieved the objective. The key results have a specific numeric goal, and the timing to achieve that goal should be short — between 3 months to a year at the most.

Why we use OKRs

  • OKRs require ambition — a good OKR is one that is not easily achievable. While government services are delivered consistently, and often large-scale change is very challenging to implement and sometimes is not needed at all, there are a number of areas where change needs to happen, and quickly. OKRs are perfect for this because the goals should not be easy and maybe should be just out of reach so change is almost required.
  • OKRs require openness and transparency — typically in companies that use OKRs, the goals are set and available for anyone else internally to see. Since we are a government doing work on behalf of our community, we make these goals radically transparent. You can see them here: http://dashboards.syrgov.net (this version of the site built by Jesse Cases). We are open about what we want to achieve, the challenge to get to that achievement, and how we are progressing. Often the numbers don’t look great, but that is the point.
  • OKRs require alignment — especially in government, there are a lot of silos. Often times, communication across silos is very difficult, sometimes purposefully so. By having open and transparent OKRs, all the departments know what the priorities are and which departments are specifically focused on them. If help is needed or ideas come up from another silo, it is easy to identify where there can be help.

How we use OKRs

  • Setting OKRs — The first step is to determine the OKRs for the organization. It is our belief that we should have some top-level OKRs that guide the work of departments which guide the work of front line staff. The top-level OKRs are here: http://dashboards.syrgov.net/. Our office then worked with individual departments to determine where their work best fit into each of the OKRs (NOTE: The OKRs don’t cover all of the departments’ work, but key pieces of it). The departments were able to select their own key results. Our only ask was that they remain ambitious. For example, if the public works department set a goal about the number of days it should take to fill potholes, we wanted them to strive to do better than they currently were doing. It would not be a good key result for them to say they wanted to fill potholes within a month when they already were filling potholes within 10 days. The departments were generally excited about finding good key results, and we continue to onboard more departments.
  • Prep for Department Head meetings — the Mayor’s Department Head meeting each Wednesday focuses for half of the meeting on one of the objectives. Since there are four Mayoral-level objectives, we use a four-week cycle to cover all objectives (we do add in a free week to cover other issues). About one week prior, our office reviews numbers with departments involved with the objective being covered in the upcoming Department Head meeting and talks about progress in the past month toward the different key results as well as challenges that need to be ironed out during the Department Head meeting.
  • Department Head meetings — the meeting includes a presentation by the senior staff member that owns each initiative with updates from the individual department. Other meeting attendees will ask questions about the numbers, make suggestions about ways to improve, and tackle other issues related to the OKRs that otherwise do not always get discussed. The meetings are not always fruitful or fully engaging, but when they are it is fun to watch. Additionally, it fills other department leaders in on the work happening elsewhere in the city — the assessment department may not know what the water department is planning, so the discussion is helpful.
  • Follow up from Department Head meetings — at almost every meeting, there is a discussion about next steps, goals for the next month, and additional analysis or process change that needs to happen. Our office will help facilitate that sometimes, other times the departments take on the work themselves.
  • Data > Innovation > Accountability — when we first started this journey to OKRs, our office conceived of a cyclical process including data, innovation, and accountability that would help drive improvement. Given that we had specific objectives and key results, we either could start with data analyses that would uncover bottlenecks in a process or identify specific cases that needed work. Then we would help facilitate innovative thinking around how to solve the problem — sometimes this is process improvement, sometimes it is getting people to talk to each other, sometimes it is something that is completely new (Adria Finch leads this innovation process). That innovative idea is tested and measured to see progress, and then the departments get held accountable to start implementing the new idea and making it a permanent part of their work (this is hard!). At that point, we should start seeing positive change in the OKRs.
    The conception of this process also helped us come up with the name for our office — the Office of Accountability, Performance, and Innovation. The first letters of each word — API — have another meaning in software development (application programming interface). The purpose of API in that context is that it is a system of tools and resources to help developers create software by enabling communication between multiple systems. We see ourselves in much the same way — enabling communication between departments that should result in better outcomes (just like in programming, though, there are bugs in our process, too!).

Challenges

  • Data accuracy — story of my life…ugh. It is often hard to count things. The processes we have in government are often complicated. The software we use to track our processes are often outdated or not built to easily enable performance management programs. At almost every meeting about OKRs we have lengthy discussions about if the data is correct, what else might be contributing to the numbers looking a certain way, and we constantly have to ensure we are reporting everything accurately. It is a necessary part of the process, but it is always difficult and rarely straight forward.
  • Ambition and transparency — as much as we value ambitious OKRs and being transparent about them, it is hard to see numbers not resulting in the anticipated way. Often, we will hear departments asking to report on other good things happening, or on specific instances where something has gone well. We fully support this as we think it is important for people to feel good about their accomplishments. We also, though, remind senior staff members to support efforts to make things better, even if they are slow or do not work. The point of OKRs is not to achieve every single goal, in fact, they should be designed with enough ambition so that there are always key results that are not met. If all the OKRs were easy to meet, we wouldn’t be doing it right. We do not want people to feel as if they are on the “hot seat” during these meetings — they should be supportive but still expect improvement.
  • Communication with front-line staff — we generally have done a good job ensuring top level staff in each department understands the OKR process and the expectations — after all, they have set most of the goals. Getting front line staff to understand the expectations is much harder. The city has 1,800 employees doing many different types of work. Getting them to understand OKRs is difficult. We also want to encourage front-line staff to set their own OKRs since ultimately their work will roll up into larger overall progress. This is still a work-in-progress.

Successes

  • Sewers — one of the OKRs focuses on reducing the number of times city staff revisit a location to resolve the same problem. The hope is that they can resolve it the first time completely. One area where the city receives repeat calls is on sewer back ups. With an aging infrastructure system, sewers are a challenge. When we looked at the data and talked about some ways to improve the metric, our Department of Neighborhood and Business Development brought up that there were grants available from the County to help resolve sewer issues in homes. This was an instance where the problem being presented to Department Heads created an opportunity to better communicate. Following the meeting, the sewer department began bringing flyers about the grant program along with them.
  • Permitting — Approving permits for home or business improvements or development is important, and historically it has taken a long time to approve many types of permits. With specific reviews of permit times, including deep dives into which departments were taking longest to review permits, the speed to approve permits has increased drastically.
  • Budgeting — how the city spends its money is critically important, and adherence to budget is also essential. In the last fiscal year, the variance of spending to budget was 11% — this meant that we thought we would spend a certain amount and ended up spending 11% less. It is better to under spend than over spend, but it also means that we weren’t spending money that we expected to, and in a city that has a lot of needs for investment, the money could have been used elsewhere. By focusing more closely on budget spending, we were able to close the budget variance to be within 5% — a lot of progress over just one year.

OKRs have not solved all of our problems, and there is still a lot more work to be done, but we are excited about the progress and the path that OKRs give us.

Have you used OKRs before? Have they been successful?

Sam Edelstein

Written by

Chief Data Officer @Syracuse1848 | @SyracuseU ’07 | I like to hang out with my dog and explore!

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