Fighting the fear of ambition

Stretch goals can lead to big gains, but fear of accountability often keeps agencies from trying.

Shelley Metzenbaum

OMB's Shelley Metzenbaum, says the chief value of stretch goals is to improve performance through ambitious effort, not necessarily to meet the goal in every detail.

Stretch goals can lead to big accomplishments. The phrase, as it suggests, means to set goals that seem just on the edge of being attainable. When agencies reach them, or even just come close, it signifies a major achievement.

And yet, many agencies are wary of setting them. Fears of congressional appropriators or an inspector general knocking at the door can persuade some federal managers to stay in their comfort zone, to set goals they’re sure they can reach.

“They think somebody in Congress or somebody in [the Government Accountability Office] or somebody who has an oversight responsibility is going to punish them if they don’t meet a stretch goal,” Patricia McGinnis, a professor at the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration at the George Washington University, said Oct. 12 during a panel discussion. The Trachtenberg School hosted an event at which several senior federal officials spoke.

Stretch goals, if set properly, are challenging but not impossible. Agencies can reach them with their available resources. The Obama administration has told agency officials to set several goals that will stretch the way they work and force them to think differently about accomplishing their mission.

But the fear of oversight is strong because the goal’s target – no matter how ambitious -- becomes the measure by which outsiders judge the agency.

“From an oversight perspective, that’s your metric. There are no almosts,” Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president of Global Public Sector at TechAmerica, said in an interview Oct. 16. And “someone with a pair of handcuffs is always looking over their shoulder.”

So, McGinnis, the panel’s moderator, asked a simple question: Why not be safer?

Panelist Shelley Metzenbaum, associate director for performance and personnel management at the Office of Management and Budget, said these ambitious goals assist with change and innovation. The point is not necessarily to achieve the objective, although it’s important. She referred to the Interior Department and its goal in 2011 to permit 9,000 megawatts of renewable energy on Interior land. In two years, they had permitted 6,000 megawatts, she said. Officials did not make their goal, but for perspective, the department had permitted 1,500 megawatts, total, in the prior 20 years.

“They didn’t meet their target, but that wasn’t the issue. The issue was to drive innovation, to force them to think differently,” Metzenbaum said.

And contrary to the fears connected to oversight, she said OMB would not condemn an agency for missing the mark on its ambitious goals. She tried to calm the lingering fear some employees, particularly those responsible for meeting the goal. In the past, she said agencies have been penalized for coming up short on a stretch goal. “So we’ve tried to be very clear about our accountability expectations,” she said.

As for Interior, “we celebrated their success,” she said.

However, Metzenbaum’s assurances apply only to OMB, not to other oversight entities.

Experts questioned whether auditors and GAO, even appropriators, would take OMB’s stance.

“The IG and the budget process don’t look at things halfway,” Hodgkins said. There could be a backlash and some raised eyebrows.

In these fiscal times, agencies are cautious staking their allotted money on a stretch goal. If budgeters and overseers on Capitol Hill find an agency failing in what it set out to do, they may conclude officials did not handle their project well and is wasting precious tax dollars. Ultimately, an agency could lose its funding, he said.

Nevertheless, agencies can navigate through an ambitious goal and show their success, even if they do not achieve all they wanted, Stan Soloway, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, said Oct. 16. Agency leaders must recognize the progress that has been made toward the target.

Soloway served nearly three years as the deputy undersecretary of defense of acquisition reform and also as director of Defense Secretary William Cohen’s Defense Reform Initiative. He was in charge of far-reaching reforms to the Defense Department’s acquisition processes and policies. He said he sat down nervously in some meetings with the DOD’s top officials, knowing he had not accomplished all he had planned in his stretch goals. But he said those officials knew he was aiming for what he called “Behags,” or “big hairy audacious goals.” Despite the results, they knew he had made progress.

They spotted the progress because they were involved early on in developing the goals—an important part of striving for an ambitious goal, he said. It’s largely a leadership issue.

The same applies to overseers. He suggested agencies should let the agency’s auditors and congressional committees share their thoughts on the goals early on. They will have more invested in the program and understand what the agency wants to accomplish. They will even recognize progress, he said.

“You don’t want armchair quarterbacks,” Soloway said. “You want involvement from the beginning.”

FCW Intern Emily Cole contributed to this report.

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