Why are good objectives important?

Tarsipes rostratus RNO 6

I worked on a development site where dust was a significant issue. How did I know that, well there were red plumes of fine powdery material continuously wafting through the air, machinery increased the presence of this red material, I had grit in my eyes and ears, and at the end of the day my clothes were covered with a fine lay of red dust. However, ‘officially’ there wasn’t a dust problem because the contractor was not prepared to place dust monitors on the site. Here the often quoted Peter Drucker axiom ‘if you can’t measure it, then you can’t manage it’ was used in reverse. The contractor did not wish to acknowledge there was a problem, and the problem from its point of view went away because it was not recorded.

I like the extension of this axiom that says ‘if you can’t measure it, then you can’t manage it, and if you don’t measure it, then you don’t care’. So what has this to do with good objectives? Good objectives are measurable. I strongly subscribe to the need to write objectives in the SMART format, i.e. Specific, Measureable, Achievable or Assignable, Relevant or Realistic and Time-bound. Without appropriately written objectives, any measurement can have little purpose or value. Management can only effectively deploy available resources if it constantly measures performance against objectives. A basic skill of a good manager is the ability of draft good objectives.

It seems to me that we are particularly poor at writing objectives in the environmental management industry. This is either because we don’t know any better, we wish to be suitably vague, we don’t want to be held accountable for a poor performance or we don’t care if we improve. Some of our environment agencies avoid writing objectives, probably for the reasons outlined above, others use euphemisms for objectives such as ‘outcomes’. An alternative approach to writing objectives is to prepare Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), as these indicate specific, time-bound intended outcomes. KPIs are generally a selected group of outcome statements that when measured provide feedback about overall performance, and therefore serve a similar purpose to measurement of objectives that are written in the SMART format.

Below are three sets of objectives/outcome statements that illustrate my point about poorly written objectives/outcome statements.

Department of Parks and Wildlife

These are the ‘Desired Outcomes’ for the Department of Parks and Wildlife that are taken from the 2014-15 WA State Government Budget Papers. For each of these there is one or two Key Effectiveness Indicators (KEIs).

Outcomes Key Effectiveness Indicators 2015-2016 budget target
Community enjoyment of the State’s national parks, marine parks, State forest and other reserves.

 

 Average level of visitor satisfaction with their visit.

 

    85%

 

The State’s native plants and animals are conserved and habitat, ecosystem and landscape-scale conservation are based on best practise science.

 

Proportion of critically endangered and endangered taxa and ecological communities that have a recovery plan.

 

    69%

 

That State’s plants and animals and the lands and waters under the Department’s care are managed for tourism, water and wood production, and other approved uses. Cumulative removal of jarrah sawlogs by approved harvesting operations compared to limits in the Forest Management Plan.

Cumulative removal of karri sawlogs by approved harvesting operations compared to limits in the Forest Management Plan.

    264,000 m³                                                                                                                                                                                               118,000 m³
Lands under the Department’s care are managed to protect communities, visitors and built and natural assets from bushfire damage and planned fire is used to achieve other land, forest and wildlife management objectives.

 

Proportion of the South West bushfires contained to less than two hectares.

 

Proportion of planned Priority 1 prescribed burns achieved.

 

    75%                                                                                                                                                                                                           50%

 

The ecological health and community benefit of the Swan and Canning rivers is protected. Proportion of river ecosystem health targets achieved.     55%

How specific and relevant are these Outcome and KEI statements, do you think this is what DPaW should be doing and are they useful tools to measure the overall performance of DPaW? A quick read of the DPaW’s ‘Strategic Directions 2014-17’ will show a serious disconnect between its strategic priorities and Parliament approved Outcomes and KEIs.

Draft Perth and Peel Green Growth Plan for 3.5 million

I have selected some of the Conservation Objectives from Table 4 – 4 in the draft Perth and Peel Green Growth Plan for 3.5 million.

Species Conservation objectives
Calyptorhynchus banksii naso
  • Ensure the continued use of the Strategic Assessment Area by the species
  • Avoid and protect habitat in the Strategic Assessment Area that is required to maintain the north-western extent of the species distribution and population.
  • Maintain habitat connectivity across the Strategic Assessment Area between the north-eastern and southern extent of the species’ range.
  • Undertake research to improve knowledge about the species and inform conservation effort and management in the Strategic Assessment Area.
 Pseudocheirus occidentalis
  • Maintain the long-term viability of the Western Ringtail Possum within the Strategic Assessment Area by protecting and maintaining a connected network of known and potential habitat within the Strategic Assessment Area.
 Bettongia penicillata ogilbyi
  • Prevent impacts to known habitat in the Strategic Assessment Area.
  • Maintain the potential for the species to occur within the Strategic Assessment Area.

How specific are these objectives? Are the objectives measurable and can the government of the day be held accountable based on these objectives? How much wriggle room is there in achieving these objectives, and is the measurement of performance possible?

Numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus) Recovery Plan (Draft)

The recovery objectives in the ‘Numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus) Recovery Plan’ are to:

  1. Ensure the security of existing self-sustaining subpopulations.
  2. Extend the current distribution of the numbat.
  3. Ensure genetic health and diversity is maintained.
  4. Increase community awareness and participation in the conservation of the numbat (Department of Parks and Wildlife (prepared by J.A. Friend and M.J. Page) 2015, p. 33)’.

The recovery plan then provides the following performance criteria that indicate ‘success’ and ‘failure’ within a 10 year period:

Success

  • All subpopulations currently assessed as self-sustaining persist.
  • Additional subpopulations have been established at one or more sites.
  • Genetic health and diversity is described and maintained.
  • Increased recognition of the status of the numbat and support towards its conservation.

Failure

  • Any of the subpopulations currently assessed as self-sustaining are lost.
  • No additional subpopulations have been established.
  • No increased recognition of the status of the numbat or support towards its conservation.

So for example, how do we measure ‘maintain genetic health and diversity’ and do we actually intend to establish baseline data beforehand and measure it at the end of the recovery plan period or for ‘increase community awareness and participation in the conservation of the numbat’ does DPaW have good baseline data on the current level of community awareness and participation in the conservation of the numbat and will it measure it at the end of the recovery plan period?

If we want better outcomes, better value for expenditure and higher levels of accountability then we need to write better objectives. This can then be followed up measuring outcomes and closing the feedback loop such that management (and the community) know how well we have performed and we can then do something about improving our performances. Have we become so accepting of poor performances by our community and government agencies that we no longer pay any attention to what they say they will achieve, how it will be measured and what they will do with the data, if any are collected. Take for example, the DPaW KEI ‘Proportion of critically endangered and endangered taxa and ecological communities that have a recovery plan.’ Is this KEI relevant and is the target of 69% relevant, particularly when it is widely known that many of the specific initiatives written into these recovery plans are never implemented. Surely a more relevant measure of performance would be the number of species listed under the various threatened species categories.

Another benefit of writing objectives in the SMART format is you can actually hold a particular person or agency accountable for achieving those objectives. If no one is accountable for achieving a specific objective, then there is a high probability that it will not be achieved. The private sector is very aware of this principle and regularly attaches bonuses or payment to the achievement of specific and measurable KPIs.

I guess one cannot fail if there are no objectives or KPIs, and to accept no or poorly written objectives for an agency or a program is to accept that you are happy for it to fail to perform, in which case you probably don’t care.

How do management plans and programs you implement rate when tested against a SMART planning framework?

DCF 1.0

Reference

Department of Parks and Wildlife (prepared by J.A. Friend and M.J. Page). 2015. Numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus) Recovery Plan. Wildlife Management Program No. 60. Perth.

Photo credit: Top – Honey Possum (Tarsipes rostratus); bottom – Western Ringtail Possum (Pseudocheirus occidentalis)

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