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Philly should learn from tech by embracing “OKR’s”

A column in last week’s Inquirer made the argument that Philadelphia’s civic leaders could be doing more to address poverty. The author, longtime business reporter Joe DiStefano, mentioned Amazon moving into the city as the type of catalyzing event that would revitalize the city’s economy.

I felt the column did a disservice to the hard working and well-intentioned Philadelphians who hold our city’s elected, appointed, and civil service positions. Although being Philly, we certainly have our share of shady deals and outright crooks.

Yet Joe is right when it comes to the heart of the issue. We could be doing “more” but the problem isn’t one of motivation, rather of alignment. Philadelphia’s city government has a diffuse set of goals that turn incidents like last week’s parkway feud into public relations fumbles. So many constituencies and power centers that Philadelphia’s relatively “weak” mayor (constitutionally speaking) ends up playing more defense than offense.

The bully pulpit remains a unique advantage to the mayoral seat, especially when said seat is occupied by a feisty South Philly Dem who knows how to use Twitter. But in that position, today’s constituents expect more than platitudes and promises. Measurable progress matters, even if it’s just in the individual’s pocketbook.

Tech companies have for decades been using an organizational alignment tool called Objectives & Key Results (OKR’s). The tool was invented at Intel during the chip wars and has remained a popular tool throughout the venture capital and startup community. OKR’s are a list of goals (the what) that each have a few measurable components (the how). Here are a couple example OKR’s for Philadelphia:

Be less deadly

  • Reduce y/o/y murders by 50%
  • Reduce y/o/y fatal overdoses by 50%
  • All schools under federal asbestos & lead limit

Be more equitable

  • All schools > 1,000 avg SAT
  • Reduce pedestrian traffic death by 50%
  • Diversity requirements for big contracts

Great OKR’s are set by the organizational leader as a way to align effort between a few discrete goals that can be re-evaluated on an annual or biannual basis. OKR’s are typically public and work best when each rung of an organization participated in the exercise of defining their OKR’s. While the example OKR’s above might suit Mayor Kenney, the Parks & Recreation department might have an OKR like this:

Make Philly parks sanctuaries

  • Equip & train 50% active field staff with Narcan
  • Reduce park/park adjacent crime by 50%
  • Achieve Vision Zero within/on P&R territory

By setting OKR’s, leaders can provide north stars that can guide decisions at any level of the organization. In the city context, even the public might respond well to the clarity provided by the cycle of OKR definition & assessment—and who knows, maybe even contribute their own time, energy, and resources around a specific measurable key result, like bike safety or Narcan availability.

Philadelphia probably won’t be implementing OKR’s any time soon (and it would be the first city of any kind to do so), but the idea could be useful even for media organizations trying to frame their own internal reporting on the city’s most wicked problems. “Solutions journalism” is an emergent discipline at PMN and other news organizations, and its focus on actionable & data-driven policy recommendations would be a terrific complement to the OKR framework, even if the actual objectives and key results are crowdsourced from the public rather than Kenney himself actually taking part in the effort (even though I think it could ultimately elicit another one of those famous happy dances if he bought in).

To learn more about OKR’s, check out this 2013 video on how Google used the tools:

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