The Goal Thing

[ Mike McGinn at an ambassador meeting, clearly enjoying the outreach process: It’s a good sign. ]

Seattle Mayor-elect Mike McGinn kicked off his transition with a call for input from the public on three questions:

  1. How do we build the strongest possible team to achieve the policy objectives and values set forth by the campaign (grass roots community involvement, transparency and neighborhood focus)?
  2. How do we build public trust in the new administration?
  3. What do you view as the incoming administration and the city’s greatest challenge – what should we do first out of the gate?

I’ll start with question number three, because in the end it all comes down to action.   But before we can act, we first must have an inspiring purpose—we must have goals.   And so pulling back to the big picture view, my take is:  Establishing transcendent goals is both the greatest challenge, and what must been done first out of the gate.

Setting goals is challenging because a good goal must be many things:  uplifting and compelling, galvanizing and uniting, lofty, but not too lofty.  A good goal can’t be too vague or open to interpretation—goals must have measurable outcomes against which success can be gauged.  And the best goals have broad implications and percolate out across multiple realms—they’re game changers.

At a Town Hall lecture two weeks ago Alex Steffen proposed a goal for the City of Seattle:   achieve carbon-neutrality by the year 2030.  This is the right stuff.  Of course the main objections would be that it’s too aggressive, and would require too much sacrifice.  But closer analysis reveals that pursuing this goal would lead to greater prosperity for all in the long run.  And aiming high is better than aiming low.

Mayor Greg Nickels recently proposed another excellent goal:  Seattle will become the most walkable city in the nation.  The City made a laudable first step toward that end with the production of a new Pedestrian Master Plan, but unfortunately the dedication of funding for implementation has fallen far short of what is needed.   The overt statement of a goal provides ammo for pedestrian advocates to keep up the pressure on electeds, but more importantly, it is what set the whole process in motion.  Which is why setting goals right out of the gate is so important.


With a set of goals in place,  the issue broached in question number one—building a team—becomes more focused.  You bring on leaders who have demonstrated that they passionately believe in your goals.  And those who don’t most likely won’t want to be on the team anyway.

And since meaningful goals for the City almost invariably draw from multiple disciplines and city departments, the most successful team will be comprised of leaders with a strong interdisciplinary mindset, who thrive on open collaboration, who have the intellectual bravery and curiosity to learn outside their usual boundaries, and who can see the big picture.  The “silos” of isolated practice within City government must be dismantled if we hope to have a shot at the challenges we face.  And I would go so far as to say it calls for a dedicated team within the administration:  The Silo Busters.


So that leaves question number two—what about trust?  Trust takes time—it can’t be rushed.  Certainly the “open-source transition” will help, though real trust will only come when people see the administration act on the input they get from the public.

In the mean time, an established set of goals can help build trust.  Because when people buy in to the goals, they’re less likely to be suspicious of every move the administration makes.  If people can see the long game, they’ll be more inclined to put their trust in proposals that might otherwise seem too burdensome based only on the myopic view.

There’s also a flavor of trust that people grant to bold leaders.  And I would put forth that the residents of Seattle are starving for bold leadership.  The immense and escalating challenges the City faces—economic, social, and environmental—are widely recognized, and the cause of not a little angst among Seattle residents.  If the new Mayor can show that he recognizes these grave concerns, and that he has appropriately bold goals for how to address them, I suspect we may hear a surprisingly loud collective sigh of relief.


So what then, are the right goals for Seattle?  What does Seattle want to be?

In the broadest sense,  Seattle must become a sustainable city fit to thrive in the 21st Century.   And it is critical to emphasize that sustainability means a better life for everyone.

I would argue that we already know the ingredients of the sustainable city we want.  There are numerous existing models that demonstrate the key pieces (though none have pushed them as far as they need to go).  There has been an exhaustive amount of research and an exhausting amount discussion.  By now it’s a familiar list to anyone who’s been paying attention:  affordable housing, equitable public schools, a resilient economy, green jobs, energy and resource conservation, carbon neutrality, pollution and waste reduction, compact development, a vibrant public realm, extensive transit, safe streets, efficient delivery of public services, cohesive neighborhoods, an engaged citizenry, diversity in all of its expressions, and equitable access to all the City has to offer.

All that’s missing is the follow through.  And that starts with a translation of what we want into an explicit, inspiring, and visionary set of goals. 

[ The view from the 60th floor of the Seattle Municipal Tower:  What does this city want to be? ]

13 Responses to “The Goal Thing”

  1. Jonathan O

    I couldn’t agree more and wrote a rambling essay on STB making a similar point. I am one of those citizens starving for leadership. Seattle is at its best when it is riled up about something, often by feeling threatened. We have grown very, very lazy indeed.

  2. Mark

    Great stuff, Dan. Excellent point about the “silo busters”, as I’ve seen the “siloization” (trademark pending) happen almost without exception when dealing with the City and a potentially simple situation. Neighborhood planning suffered from the siloization of tasks and then were just about killed altogether when the city eliminated one of the actual “silo buster” positions that was created from the planning process – the Neighborhood Planning Coordinator (or whatever the title was of folks like Thomas Whittemore, David Goldberg, and others – Roger knows these folks…)

    I’m in… whatever the solution looks like, I’m in.

  3. JoshMahar

    Great piece Dan! I completely agree that a clear vision and bold leadership is the most necessary thing for Seattle right now. Actually mobilizing towards the goals you mention is the only way for Seattle to stay healthy. If we try to cling to the past our future will look much like Baltimore and Detroit’s. But then, at least we would solve the issue of affordability.

  4. slag

    I like it! And one way to keep goals from becoming (or seeming) too lofty is to issue them as “challenges”. As Jonathan O mentioned, we like to be riled up. It galvanizes us. And if someone challenges us to do something, our rebellious spirit is engaged. “Yes We Can” was so valuable for Obama because inherent in the phrase was the unstated notion that some people might be thinking we couldn’t. And that simply will not do.

  5. Brian

    How is this for a goal?

    I want this here. Now.

  6. Joe Brewer

    Hey Dan,

    Very nice post. I agree 100%. One of the key missing elements I see right now for Seattle is organizational structure and cultural practices that bring coherence to the exciting ideas and emerging solutions throughout the region. Luckily, this is something that can be remedied in a fairly straightforward way.

    In fact, I’m networking like mad these days with leading innovative thinkers in local government, social businesses, and forward-looking nonprofits as part of a project to catalyze the innovation scene here and set up key structures for long-term strategic visioning and coordination of efforts to bring sustainable design to the entire region.

    Let me know if you want to participate! This’ll only work if we promote synergistic parallel collaborations throughout the growing web of activities in Seattle (and around the world).


    Joe Brewer
    Director, Cognitive Policy Works

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