NZ Government Adopts OKRs?

It seems the New Zealand Government plans to use OKRs to drive its programme to improve public sector performance. But is the sector positioned to deliver?

Tony Wilson

4/9/20243 min read

On 8th April the New Zealand Government released nine medium term (5-6 year) targets covering health, education, crime, employment, housing and climate change.

The Government, understandably, isn’t calling them OKRs - that sort of jargon would turn off most voters. But you don’t have to dig far into their press releases and supporting documents to see that there is at least an implicit OKR framework in play.

Let’s take one of the targets as an example - Eighty per cent of students to be present for more than 90 per cent of the term. When you place this in its wider context, all the elements of an OKR framework are present:

Objective: To significantly increase the proportion of students leaving school with the skills and qualifications to succeed in life*

KR: Eighty per cent of students to be present for more than 90 per cent of the term (the Target).

Cycle length: The KR has a 6 year time frame (by 2030) but progress will be regularly monitored and reported.

Transparency: The Ministry of Education will publish attendance data regularly on its website to monitor progress.

Initiatives: The government has announced a number of initiatives aimed at helping achieve the objective, including:

  • The Education Review Office will conduct an in-depth evaluation of the education systems, services and school practices designed to get the most chronically absent students back into school.

  • The Social Wellbeing Agency will use the Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI) to understand school attendance to support research, evaluation and service design work being undertaken at the Ministry of Education and the Education Review Office.

  • Developing a Traffic Light System to set out the requirements and expectations for parents, schools, and the Ministry at different stages of a student’s attendance, with clear obligations for when a student is not attending

Ownership: Associate Minister of Education, Secretary for Education

The other eight targets follow as similar pattern. And in true OKR fashion, lead agencies will be expected to show tactical agility in pursuit of the stated objectives. To quote the Prime Minister’s press release “the Government expects the public service to dig deeply into root causes, to be innovative, and to be disciplined in directing resources to where they will have the greatest impact on outcomes.”

My View

The Government's foray into OKRs is an interesting first start, and as an advocate for OKRs, one that I applaud.  I firmly believe that OKRs can be used to significantly improve public service delivery, and that's a win for taxpayers and consumers of public services.  I also believe that the state has a vital role in supporting the quality of life of all citizens and that there is an absolute imperative for our public institutions to operate with efficiency and agility in delivering the services we all rely on.  So bring on OKRs! (with the following caveats):

  • OKRs don't resolve the problem of choosing the right high level objectives.  That's ultimately a political choice about the type of society we wish to live in and leave for our descendants - a choice voters make at the ballot box. 

  • The Government has presently identified only nine key targets (KRs) spread across six domains.  This is insufficient to properly measure progress against stated objectives and unless a broader range of KRs is chosen it is almost certain that the high level objectives will not be met, or unintended consequences will arise.

  • Adopting OKRs doesn't resolve the problem of choosing the right initiatives to achieve KRs.  Does anyone really believe that reintroducing military-style boot camps will reduce child and youth offending (another Government target)?  

  • The Government clearly expects agencies charged with achieving its KRs to adopt an OKR mindset, to "dig deeply into root causes, to be innovative, and to be disciplined".  It's not at all clear to me whether the decision making and operational flexibility exists within lead agencies to quickly meet the Government's expectations.  It's also not clear that the Government will allow the public sector to pursue innovative initiatives aimed at addressing the root causes of problems (see the boot camp example above).   I suspect a crash course in OKRs 101 may be needed for many agencies and their political masters.

* this is my short form version of the Government’s objective. Their formulation is “We need students to be in school, learning. More students attending regularly will mean more leaving school with the qualifications to succeed in higher education, in the workforce, in their communities and in the world”