A modest proposal to improve local government transparency and effectiveness

Could an OKR approach help councils to frame their goals in a way that’s more meaningful and transparent to the public (and their staff)?  I was intrigued, so I did some homework - and I think the answer is a resounding YES.

Tony Wilson

5/9/20243 min read

A modest proposal to improve local government transparency and effectiveness

I recently wrote a blog post about the New Zealand Government’s apparent pivot towards OKRs, which got me thinking about OKRs and local government.  

After all, every local authority has an Annual Plan where it sets out the council’s short and medium term goals and aligns them to the longer term goals in its 10-year Plan.  Could an OKR approach help councils to frame their goals in a way that’s more meaningful and transparent to the public (and their staff)?  I was intrigued, so I did some homework - and I think the answer is a resounding YES.

A quick scan of local councils’ Annual Plans shows that their short to medium term goals are often framed in a way that’s very familiar to OKR users. The best examples describe objectives for specific services that are aligned to higher level aspirational outcomes, and provide a range of well designed key results for each objective.

Kudos here to my local council, the Dunedin City Council, for the way they have framed the annual goals for the Dunedin Public Art Gallery (DPAG):

High level aspirational outcome:  A creative city with a rich and diverse arts and culture scene

DPAG Objective: DPAG provides access to a diverse visual art experience which meets the expectations of visitors and the collection is managed according to international best practice.

Key Results

  • ≥ 40% of residents visit DPAG at least once per year

  • ≥ 90% of residents who visited DPAG were satisfied with their visit

  • ≥ 90% of all visitors to DPAG were satisfied with their visit

  • ≥ 195,000 total visits to DPAG annually

  • ≥ 40% of exhibition galleries are committed to the display from the permanent collection 

Remembering that this is one of the best examples I’ve found, it seems to me that there’s still plenty of scope to report DPAG’s annual goals and achievements in a way that gives ratepayers such as myself a better understanding of what they aim to achieve and how they are performing.  Here are three possibilities for improvement:

  • Add at least one new, more inspirational short term goal.  At present DPAG has two explicit goals, both of which essentially involve maintaining the status quo (provide access to a diverse visual art experience which meets the expectations of visitors; and manage the collection according to international best practice).  How about adding a third (or fourth) goal that involves changing DPAG in a way that delights or exceeds visitor expectations?

  • Set more ambitious key results:  I’m sorry to report that each of the key results above that has been set for 2023/24 was already met or exceeded in 2019/20.  The key results all reflect a focus on maintaining the status quo rather than aiming higher.  Surely there’s some scope for setting key results that haven’t already been met?

  • Add an “Initiatives” column to the Annual Plan.  I’m sure DPAG has all sorts of initiatives planned or underway aimed at improving the visitor experience.  Why not add them to the Annual Plan and link them to goals and key results so that everyone can see the good work happening at DPAG and how it's contributing to the DCC’s aim of making Dunedin “a creative city with a rich and diverse arts and culture scene”.

There are 11 regional councils and 67 territorial authorities in New Zealand, all of which are full of people working hard for their local communities, sometimes without much thanks.  Applying some good OKR practice to the way that short term goals and measures are established and presented in Annual Plans could help provide more meaningful and transparent information to all stakeholders and build greater trust and connection between councils and the residents they serve.